When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi returned from a 57-day-long unexplained sabbatical in 2015, he surprised his critics with his image make-over. He was, at once, vocal, visible, confident and aggressive, launching a no holds barred attack against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thereby casting himself as the party’s “angry young man”.
A year later, the Nehru-Gandhi scion appears to have changed tack. This was evident in the two speeches he delivered at the special convention organised by the Congress at Delhi’s Talkatora stadium on Wednesday against Modi’s decision to annul Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes last November.
Gandhi continued with his aggressive anti-Modi pitch. However, instead of adopting the “angry young man” approach, he chose to mock the prime minister. The Congress vice-president poked fun at Modi’s pet phrases, and choice of words like “mitron”, the various schemes the prime minister has introduced over the last two-and-a-half years and his inability to do the padmasana (lotus position) while participating in Yoga Day celebrations. Taking a jibe at Modi’s promise of “acche din” to the people, Gandhi said, “Acche din will only come when the Congress comes to back to power in 2019.”
Gandhi’s potshots at Modi drew the loudest cheers from the audience, comprising state-level and district-level party leaders and workers.
“The Prime Minister says he can do yoga very well but have you noticed he cannot do the padmasana,” said Gandhi. “I also noticed that when he launched his Swachh Bharat campaign, he wielded a broom. But did you see how he was holding the broom…it was all wrong? Nothing gets cleaned if you hold the broom like that.”
At one point, Gandhi even compared Modi to Amitabh Bachchan, saying that the prime minister delivered dialogues in the same fashion as the Bollywood superstar did in films.
He flagged demonetisation as the Modi government’s worst decision that had eroded the credibility of institutions like the Reserve Bank of India, hit the economy and hurt the poor.
Here again, he mimicked Modi, putting his hand into his kurta pocket to declare: “Mitron, all the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in your pockets are now mere pieces of paper.”
Continuing with his mocking tone, Gandhi quoted from a song in a Bachchan film. “Ram naam japna, gareeb ka maal apna [Take the name of God, usurp the money of the poor]…. That’s the philosophy of this suit-boot sarkar.”
By making fun of Modi, Gandhi has clearly taken a leaf out of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s book. In the past, as part of a carefully-calibrated strategy, the prime minister and BJP spokespersons have caricatured Gandhi, and portrayed him as an immature and a non-serious leader at every opportunity.
“It is true that Rahul Gandhi was essentially telling Modi and the BJP that if you can make fun of me, I can do the same,” said a senior Congress office-bearer.
While the stated objective of the day-long convention was to unveil the second phase of the party’s campaign against demonetisation, a clear message emanating from the proceedings was that Gandhi has taken over Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s responsibilities as she chose to stay away from the programme.
This is in line with her earlier decision to absent herself from the last meeting of the Congress parliamentary party, the working committee meeting and the Congress foundation day programme on December 28. All these were presided over by Rahul Gandhi.
“Today’s convention was as good as Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party chief,” said a Congress MP. “While this was already clear to party MPs and office bearers in Delhi, the message has now been conveyed to the grassroots workers…this will put an end to all the confusion among the cadres on the leadership issue.”
Said former Lok Sabha MP Sandeep Dikshit: “This programme shows that Rahul Gandhi has taken over the intellectual and operational leadership of the party.”
Party leaders said that Gandhi’s formal takeover of the party was just a mere formality, which would now happen only after the forthcoming Assembly polls in five states including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa.
The delay in Gandhi’s anointment as party chief was attributed partly to his own reluctance and partly to the resistance put up by senior Congress leaders, or Sonia Gandhi’s team members who feared they would be marginalised once the Nehru-Gandhi scion took over the top party job.
It was also pointed out that the transition in the party this time is different as earlier leaders like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi took over under unusual circumstances when there was a vacuum at the top. In this case, Sonia Gandhi is still in office, and her team members are apprehensive about their political future.
Congress against demonetisation
However, the presence of all seniors, who openly deferred to Gandhi’s leadership at Wednesday’s convention was a powerful signal that they have accepted his imminent take over of the party.
Not only were the senior leaders in attendance when Rahul Gandhi arrived at the venue, they were all present on the stage while many of them, including Ahmed Patel and Janardan Dwivedi, were seen conducting the proceedings.
Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, has been entrusted with the task of implementing the party’s campaign against demonetisation.
Though there are lingering doubts in the party about the efficacy of this campaign, Gandhi has led the Congress charge on this issue, directing the rank and file to keep up its sustained attack.
Congress insiders said that this decision is based on the party’s internal assessment that the real impact of demonetisation will be felt in the coming months, and that when the people wake up to the hardship caused by this decision, the Congress should be seen to be standing by them.
“We admit people are willing to give Modi the benefit of the doubt today, but we see this as a long-term battle,” said a Congress office bearer.
He said the issue was discussed at length by party strategists and the overwhelming opinion was that the Congress should continue with its campaign, irrespective of its immediate impact.
“It is possible that our campaign may fail but we decided to take the risk,” said the office bearer. “It was better than doing nothing about it.”
Above all, it is important for Gandhi personally to see that the campaign, kickstarted by him, does not peter out. Having been criticised for poor follow-up on issues and for his lack of staying power, Gandhi could see this as an opportunity to redeem his reputation and silence his critics.