The Congress party has spent a decade trying to introduce Rahul Gandhi to the Indian people. Between 2009 and 2013, he was the reluctant prince, prone to talking about “escape velocity” and poverty as a state of mind. Ahead of the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he was suddenly introduced as the crusader-from-within, someone willing to fight the system even though his own party had been ruling over India for a decade. Over the last few months, we have seen the third iteration of this project, one with a more definitive job title attached to it: Congress President Rahul Gandhi.

Over the course of two speeches at the Congress party’s 84th plenary session on Saturday and Sunday, in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi tried to drive home exactly what this version of the Nehru-Gandhi family scion is supposed to be. The weekend’s speeches were unremarkable except for the fact that they went off without a hitch, and Gandhi even managed to get in a few strong jabs at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the difference between their leadership styles.

“Congress will take the country forward, but we are humans,” Gandhi said before a crowd of party workers. “We make mistakes. Modi ji thinks he is not human but an incarnation of God.”

Arnab interview

To understand just how far Rahul Gandhi has come, it may be instructive to look back at the moment that was supposed to be his arrival on the national stage in 2014. With Narendra Modi’s presidential-style campaign in full swing across the country, Rahul Gandhi appeared in an interview with TV anchor Arnab Goswami on TimesNow. The interview was supposed to showcase an alternative to Modi, someone who was more empathetic and willing to subject himself to difficult questions.

It turned into a disaster. Gandhi seemed unfocused, unprepared for tough questions and unable to control the direction of the conversation. He also tried hard to portray himself as someone willing to combat “the system”, an odd stance from a dynastic leader whose party had been in power in India for a decade at that point. When Goswami asked him about Modi, this was part of his answer:

You asked me about Mr Modi you ask me about anything and the thing that I see is that the system in this country needs to change, I don’t see anything else and I am blind to everything else. I am blind because I saw people I love destroyed by the system. I am blind because the system everyday is unfair to our people, I ask you today, you come from Assam and I am sure that you also in your work feel the unfairness of the system. The system everyday, everyday hurts people and I have felt the pain that the system can cause. I felt the pain with my father, I saw him every single day of his life, so the question of whether I am afraid of losing an election or whether I am afraid of Mr Modi is not actually the point. I am here basically for one thing, I see tremendous energy in this country, I see more energy in this country than any other country, I see billions of youngsters and I see this energy is trapped.  

This was always going to be a tough argument to make for someone who represented the incumbent government and not the Opposition. But it made even less sense because Gandhi rambled, not making a clear point, and did not seem to have any awareness of being the incumbent heir apparent, so to speak, even as he railed against the system.

Singapore interaction

A few weeks ago, another uncomfortable interaction for Rahul Gandhi – who was crowned Congress president in December – showed a leader who is much more comfortable dealing with the spotlight. At an interaction in Singapore, one person made a statement blaming India’s problems on Gandhi’s family, leading to a short, testy back-and-forth. But he was followed by another audience member who credited all of India’s success to the Congress party.

Gandhi pointed out the gulf between the two questioners and used that to make two strong points: a defence of India under Congress rule and a reminder that Modi is not open to criticism. Here is most of the answer:

This conversation shows you the polarisation. That gentleman thinks that nothing has ever been done by the Congress party. This [other] gentleman thinks that everything has been done by the Congress party. Let me tell you what the truth is. India’s success is hugely because of India’s people. However, anybody in this room who thinks that the Congress party is not party of that success, anybody who thinks that gaining independence was not part of that success, that one-man one-vote, which the RSS opposed, was not part of that success, anybody that thinks green revolution was not part of that success, anybody that thinks the telecoms revolution was not part of that success, anybody that thinks liberalisation was not part of that success, anybody that thinks rights based paradigm wasn’t part of that success, needs to write a new book.

And look I’m a person who has been taught to love my opponents, love people who might dislike me. So I have absolutely no animosity towards someone who said I have achieved nothing. I even respect your opinion to be able to say that in this room, I respect. I differ with it, I will contest it, if you come and have a serious discussion with me I might even be able to convince you, or not. And I’m happy to do that. I’m proud to sit in a room and have a gentleman say this to me. Now you notice something else. Mr Narendra Modi would never do that. You would never have the ability to say what you said to me in front of Mr Narendra Modi. And I am absolutely blazingly proud of that. So after this meeting I want to give you a hug, and I want to tell you that you are important to me. Because you represent an opinion, and that is important to me. 

Leaders and workers

This is not stirring stuff but, speaking off the cuff, it suggests Gandhi has a much clearer sense of how to make a limited point and do it well. It helped that this was in English, a language he continues to be much more at home with when compared to Hindi, which he will need to use out on the campaign trail. There is nothing impressive about this new version of Rahul Gandhi, considering he has had 10 years and plenty of resources and opportunities to get his act together.

But it does come at a convenient time for the party, which though in the most precarious position it has seen since independence is also in an optimistic space because anti-incumbency against Modi is on the rise. The “fighting the system” narrative that Gandhi tried espousing in 2014 also makes much more sense after four Modi years, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has undermined many of India’s independent institutions. Gandhi has proven to be a reasonable campaigner, if not a stellar one like Modi, and all he has to do is try and co-opt unhappiness with the ruling government into his own cause, the way Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal so successfully did in 2013.

Here too, Gandhi has begun his task by admitting that there are challenges. “There is a wall between our leaders and workers,” he said at the plenary on Sunday. “My first task will be to break that wall. I will consult senior leaders to destroy that wall with love... The Congress will show how they win an election.”