Thirteen years after he plunged into the rough and tumble of politics, Rahul Gandhi began his journey as Congress president on Saturday in a brand new avatar.
Clearly inspired by the sentiment summed up in Michelle Obama’s famous line, ”When they go low, we go high,” Rahul Gandhi shed his persona of an angry young man. Instead he spoke the language of love and affection, talked of brotherhood and even described the Bharatiya Janata Party members as “our brothers and sisters”.
Realising that he cannot match Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oratorical skills, his aggression and his messaging, Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided to present himself as being diametrically opposite to the BJP leader. This was evident during the recent Gujarat election campaign when he declared that he would not say anything against Modi as he respects the Indian prime minister’s post. “In Gujarat , we will defeat you with love,” he told a election rally.
Rahul Gandhi adopted the same tone on Saturday when he took over as Congress president. Speaking calmly, with no hint of his trademark aggression, the new Congress president’s speech contained several references to love and affection. “I want the Congress party to become an instrument for dialogue between Indian people – all of us, from all corners of our great country, all religions, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders and people – and for our dialogue to always be led by love and affection,” Rahul Gandhi told party workers.
However, this did not stop Rahul Gandhi from launching a scathing attack against Modi. ”Congress took India to 21st century, but the Prime Minister is taking us backwards, to medieval times, where people are being butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat,” he said. Continuing in the same vein, he said, “We are now being compelled to imagine that businesses can be built without harmony, that one man, one man himself, is the voice of reason, that expertise, experience and knowledge can be cast aside for personal glory and that it is acceptable for our foreign policy to be in tatters so that one man can feel strong, and that everything in fact is subservient to the leader’s personal image.” .
While his attack on Modi was as sharp as ever, he pitched the Congress as a party which stands in contrast to the BJP in its inclusive and pluralistic ideology and also how it treats its political rivals. “The BJP is spreading hatred and communalism. They break, while we unite. They ignite the fire, we put it out. They break, we join,” the Congress president said. At the same time, he described the BJP as “our brothers and sisters”, stating “They want an India free of Congress, they want to erase us but the Congress’s inclusion and respect for all Indians extends even to the BJP. We do not fight hate with hate.”
The persona adopted by Rahul Gandhi today is in sharp contrast to how he had presented himself till a few months ago. “When people get disenchanted with Modi’s belligerent and high-pitched speeches, they will necessarily be looking for someone who is different. Rahul Gandhi is positioning himself in that role,” remarked a senior Congress functionary.
The Nehru-Gandhi scion has come a long way since he began his career in politics as a Lok Sabha MP of Amethi in 2004. During these 13 years, Rahul Gandhi has constantly reinvented himself in the hope of finding his groove.
In his early years, he was seen as an amiable person who tried to keep a low-profile despite the fact that he was always sought after by the media and Congress members because of his lineage. Rahul Gandhi spent this time travelling around the country, interacting with students, academics and social activists to familiarise himself with the “real India” which was probably necessary given the cocooned life he had led till then.
Somewhere down the line, he acquired the reputation of being a “reluctant” and a “part-time” politician who had been persuaded to take on this job by his mother. His tendency to take off on prolonged holidays and his decision not to join the government when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power strengthened the impression that Rahul Gandhi was not keen on a career in politics. While his own party members started doubting his capabilities, the BJP chipped in by poking fun at him and referring to him as “Pappu”. He was soon labelled as a “joke” and a “non-serious” politician. “Nothing can be worse than being ridiculed. It’s a matter of concern when people don’t take you seriously,” remarked a senior Congress leader.
In the meantime, Rahul Gandhi changed tack and gradually acquired an aggressive persona. This was first on display in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls when Rahul Gandhi led a high-octane campaign against the Samajwadi Party. He would roll up his sleeves in an act of belligerence and make angry speeches, while lashing out at his political opponents.
At one election rally, he even tore up a piece of paper purported to be a list of election promises made by his rivals. In fact, this “angry young man” image projected by Rahul Gandhi also became a butt of jokes. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Singh Yadav , who was the lead player in those elections, was quick to take a dig at the Congress leader. “Rahul seems angry. Earlier he used to get angry by folding hands, then he got angry by tearing up a paper. Who knows, next time he might jump off the stage in anger,” Akhilesh Yadav had remarked.
However, Rahul Gandhi persisted with his avatar over the next several years. Continuing in the same mould, he did not spare his own government either. In a dramatic move, Rahul Gandhi publicly tore up a copy of an ordinance providing protection to convicted MPs and MLAs which had been approved by the Manmohan Singh-led Union Cabinet. While this was an attempt by Rahul Gandhi to project himself as anti-corruption crusader and to distance himself from the graft charges which had surfaced against the UPA, he only ended up embarrassing the government.
The Nehru-Gandhi scion did not alter his path and, till recently, he continued with the same image. Whether it was the 2014 Lok Sabha poll when he attempted to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his surcharged speeches or subsequently when he railed against the BJP in general and Modi in particular both inside and outside Parliament. His description of the Modi government as a “suit boot ki sarkar” did hit home when he took on the government for amending the land acquisition Bill but that was, at best, a one-off success. Modi may have been on the back foot in this particular case but he lost no time in finding his mojo once again.
The coming days will tell if Rahul Gandhi can defeat Modi with his new image.