Rahul Gandhi’s biggest gamble in Indian politics is to try and prove that nice guys don’t always finish last.
The state election results have seen the Congress break out into a jig. Rahul Gandhi, hitherto dismissed as the Abhishek Bachchan of Indian politics, has finally delivered a hit. This by no means makes him a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan overnight, capable of delivering a blockbuster on his own steam, but at least now there is hope that he can lead an ensemble cast in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi who had seemed destined to preside over the Grand Old Party’s transformation into the Incredibly Shrinking Party has pulled off a victory. The eternal student of Indian politics has finally managed to pass an examination.
And, in the process he wants to set an example. While Narendra Modi wanted to deliver Acche Din, Rahul Gandhi is hoping to be the Acche Bachhe of Indian politics. He wants to win the Good Conduct medal. His first press conference after the election results came out was about as anti-56 inch chest as it could get. He spoke about learning from failures. He spoke about humility. He thanked the outgoing chief ministers of the states the Congress won. He congratulated the parties that won where the Congress lost. He said while the BJP wants a Congress-mukt Bharat he does not want a BJP-mukt Bharat. Rahul Gandhi wants an India where all of us can play together, ebony and ivory, living together in perfect harmony as the song goes.
Rahul Gandhi’s biggest gamble in Indian politics is to try and prove that nice guys don’t always finish last. We cannot say he has conclusively proved that. Dilli door ast. Sincere and sober is not particularly charismatic. But it does make for a refreshing change for those fed up with the politics of giant statues, lynch mobs, name changes, cows and swaggering masculinity. “I think we forgot the issue of development that Modi took up in 2014. Ram Mandir, statues and name changing became the focus,” says BJP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Kakade. The BJP did cow politics but by harping on Rafale, Rahul took the bull by the horns.
It certainly feels good to hear both sides trying to outdo each other to be humbler although Indians are definitely not used to such humble pie from their politicians. Narendra Modi is accepting the results with humility, a marked difference from 2014 when he crowed about “the beginning of a Congress-mukt Bharat”. Rahul Gandhi says the most important thing he learned from 2014 was humility.
That’s interesting given most Indians’ recollection of post-2014 Rahul Gandhi is how he appeared next to his mother, smiling and distracted, even as they presided over their party’s monumental defeat. It had seemed at that time the epitome of noblesse oblige as mother and son stepped forward to accept zimmedari for the defeat but came across as martyrs wearing the results like a crown of thorns because after all the Gandhi/Nehru family is all about sacrifice for the cause of the nation.
That image of Rahul Gandhi, pleasant but reluctant, well-intentioned but inconsistent, has been built over his interminable internship in politics. It will not be undone overnight as many seem to hope. His faux pas has given way to a sharper self-deprecating Twitter humour. Rahul Gandhi seems to enjoy the cut and thrust of politics a bit more than he once did. This election is vindication that the newer Rahul can yield dividends. “Rahul went from underdog to contender” writes Bhavdeep Kang. “This is Rahul’s coming-of-age story.”
There are now “no doubts about Rahul and Congress leading the Opposition alliance in its fight against Modi in 2019” says The Times of India report. He is the “man of the series”, says Navjot Singh Sidhu, “a captain guiding a ship in choppy waters”.
Liberals are ecstatic in their relief, embracing this newer, more disciplined Rahul Gandhi, ignoring the fact that these days he is also a bit of a “janeudhari Shiv-bhakt”. He goes temple-hopping with gusto. He is the good Dattatreya Brahmin. There is nothing wrong with any of that except it’s not clear whether this is political opportunism or deeply held belief. Many voters might be disillusioned with the BJP’s braggadocio but that does not mean they are confident that Rahul Gandhi is a new man who can stay the course.
At the end of it all a big question still remains. This was a victory but not yet quite the kind of extreme makeover the Congress needs to re-launch Rahul. The Congress wrested Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh from the BJP, but naysayers would say the party could have done better in Madhya Pradesh and lost its last bastion in the northeast.
A complete reboot will take more than one election cycle because the image of Rahul Gandhi is fairly set in Indian minds. The Congress also talked cow this election, cow shelters more than beef, but cow nonetheless. It maintained a discreet silence on lynching and decided to “sidestep a confrontation over Hindutva,” writes Mukul Kesavan. When the general election comes around, the voters will know what the Modi-Shah-Adityanath troika stands for. But what does Rahul Gandhi and the Congress stand for? “Not-the-BJP seems to be the answer for this set of state elections,” writes Kesavan. “Will political anonymity and ideological discretion be enough to prevail in a general election?”
This election has proven that Pappu can dance. As the national election draws near, the BJP will try to make it a contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in the hope that Rahul will come up short. And Rahul Gandhi will have to prove he is more than Not-Modi.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.