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Finally, this is a Rahul Gandhi that India can relate to

Bharat Jodo Yatra has shown Indians the real Rahul Gandhi, a leader who walks among his people, and not the caricature created by BJP and TV news media.

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It’s time to give credit where credit is due. No matter what you think of Rahul Gandhi’s record as Congress president and later as president-by-stealth, it is hard to deny what a stupendous achievement his Bharat Jodo Yatra is. It began on 7 September and will take 150 days to complete. Rahul is walking for 3,570 km from Kanyakumari to Kashmir entirely on foot.

So far, the yatra has been a huge success. Rahul has not travelled through any Congress-ruled state (he is yet to reach Rajasthan) but nearly everywhere he has gone, he has attracted huge crowds. His speeches have been widely appreciated and on one celebrated occasion, a crowd sat through a rainstorm to hear him speak. In Karnataka, where the BJP government is shaky, the yatra has worked to galvanise pro-Congress sentiment.

Early indications are that the yatra has also enthused the party’s cadres on the ground. But more importantly, it has given people a chance to see the real Rahul Gandhi, not the caricature created by the BJP and featured on TV news and social media.

Rahul Gandhi on Day 22 of his Bharat Jodo Yatra | Picture credit: www.bharatjodoyatra.in

And by walking the whole way, Rahul has drawn on a very Indian theme: the leader who walks among his people. This is not the sort of leader who lands by helicopter after thousands of policemen have secured the area. His speeches seem to come from the heart and are devoid of any agenda: there are no elections in most of these states so he is not there to simply win votes.

Rahul Gandhi on Day 14 of his Bharat Jodo Yatra | Picture credit: www.bharatjodoyatra.in

Also read: Sonia Gandhi still doesn’t get that meaning of power has changed in India


What Rahul Gandhi did wrong until now

When I see footage of Rahul Gandhi walking in the rain or stopping to speak to the people who line the streets, I am always hit by the same thought: why have we not seen this Rahul earlier? This is a Rahul that India can relate to.

Instead, Rahul has wasted the last several years trying to do jobs he was not cut out for, and coming across as entitled in the process. First of all, he should have served under Manmohan Singh in UPA 2, and humbly submitted himself to the Prime Minister’s will. Instead, he became an alternative power centre, even going so far as to talk about tearing up an ordinance that the Cabinet had passed. He was right about the ordinance but wrong to have undermined the Prime Minister by rubbishing it in public. It fed perfectly into the narrative which the BJP had created about his sense of entitlement.

Then, he took a job he was no good at. History has taught us that if you don’t understand how to run an organisation you can never be a good Congress president. Rahul had the right ideas: holding elections for party posts, reviving the youth Congress, and rebuilding the party cadres in Uttar Pradesh from scratch.

But it rapidly became clear that as good as those ideas were, he could never manage to implement them. He should have accepted that, stepped aside and let somebody else run the party, even if he continued to be one of its primary faces.

His judgements about people were wrong too. It is normal in the Congress to say that the young dynasts who Rahul Gandhi surrounded himself with were only in it for themselves because they all fled and joined the BJP at the first opportunity. Fair enough. But who elevated them to influence?

It was Rahul’s misjudgements about these people that led to them becoming so important to begin with.

One of the reasons Sonia Gandhi, a reticent and introverted person, was able to provide leadership to the party was that she had people like Ahmed Patel to keep in touch with the party. Rahul Gandhi has nobody of consequence. Every Congressperson you talk to will tell you that a) Rahul is inaccessible and b) he is surrounded by incompetents who have hijacked the party. You can’t be an effective party president if that is how you are perceived.


Also read: With Gehlot, Tharoor names in poll, answers to 5 questions people are asking about Congress


What Rahul Gandhi should do instead 

Almost everything that Rahul Gandhi is blamed for today stems from his inability to run an organisation. He let the advantage slip away in states such as Gujarat (where the Congress will lose though it once seemed to have had a real chance of winning), he misunderstood the nature of Punjab politics and gifted away the state, and the Congress lost Kerala because he could not control infighting.

There is also Rahul’s primary failing: his inability to see himself as India sees him. It is hard to be objective about yourself when you are surrounded by people who keep telling you that you are a genius. So Rahul does not seem to recognise that much of India sees him as a dynast with a sense of entitlement and no real achievements to show for himself.

There are successful dynasts in India but they usually have caste or regional bases. There is an obvious conflict between saying you believe in a liberal, meritocratic society and leading a party only because you were born into the job.

One reason people respect Sonia is because of her refusal to take the party president job in 1991 and then turning down the prime ministership in 2004. Rahul, on the other hand, is the first Gandhi in 60 years to voluntarily and eagerly join politics. So he needs to show humility and demonstrate that he is more than just the son of his parents.

Sadly, he has spent too little time making that clear. Instead, he has played into every cliché of entitlement, keeping people waiting, going off on foreign holidays every few months and acting as though he knows everything.

But there is also another Rahul Gandhi: one who is prepared to work hard, to slog it out, who can be warm and likeable up close, who is neither malicious nor devious, who is bright and well-read and who believes passionately in the values that India was founded on.

Unfortunately, we rarely get to see this Rahul Gandhi. The importance of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is that it allows Rahul to be himself and to let the people see that side of him. At a time when India is divided by so much hatred, who cannot support a yatra that reaffirms that we are one, and that love must bind India together?

What happens next? I honestly don’t know. I had thought that there would be an experienced organisation man (like Ashok Gehlot or Kamal Nath) as Congress president and that the party would work at getting its act together.

In that scenario Rahul could have done what he does best: travelled through India and inspired Congress workers on the ground, just as he is doing with this yatra.

I am not sure that under Mallikarjun Kharge this scenario will hold. But I do hope that Rahul Gandhi does not fall into the trap of trying to run the party himself. He is not good at it and he only makes things easier for the BJP.

Instead, he should build on the spirit of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and keep that goodwill alive. To adapt writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s famous dictum from The West Wing, he should let Rahul be Rahul.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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