As he lent a hand to former prime minister Manmohan Singh cut a cake at the party’s national headquarters here on Friday to celebrate its 133rd foundation day, Congress president Rahul Gandhi remarked how his job as party chief was increasingly to distribute the cake equally because sometimes people tended to run away with the whole cake. There were laughs all around, but few had any doubt the message their 47-year-old boss was sending out – he might allow seniors in the party to arm-twist him now and then, but would not spare the whip if pushed into a corner.
For long ridiculed as ‘pappu’ by not just the Sangh Parivar but also those within his own party, Gandhi has for over the last 12-13 months displayed a consistency of courage and hard work that has helped galvanise moribund Congress workers across India, stunned his political rivals in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and forced frenemies in the opposition space into silence. Year 2018 has not only been about the resurgence of the Congress party in the Indian politics, but about the emergence of Gandhi as a future leader of the country.
After the Congress’s wins in the three Hindi heartland states on December 11, the day Gandhi completed a year as the party president, few within his party can afford to treat his words lightly. According to sources in Twitter, the use of #pappu is currently lowest in the last five years, and is at times even lower than #fenku. Several opinion polls have put Gandhi ahead of Modi in popularity in southern Indian states, a big reason why Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M K Stalin announced that the Congress president would be the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate for 2019.
Since the Gujarat Assembly polls and the recent Assembly polls to five states, BJP strategists have waited for Gandhi to make mistakes - whether by making an incongruous statement, or leaving for a vacation overseas in the midst of a campaign. “We had factored in that he would commit some mistakes along the way, which we would exploit. The rude truth is that he hasn’t,” a BJP strategist, involved in the party’s Rajasthan poll preparation, told this reporter recently.
Those close to Gandhi say they have always known about his exceptional understanding of Indian politics, a worldview that for them was at times exasperatingly detached and his commitment to equity. What has changed is his zeal to oust Modi and Shah. “The Sangh Parivar in mocking him, Modi and Shah in pushing him into a corner, went horribly wrong. It made Gandhi determined to fight to the finish, which now has the entire Sangh Parivar rattled,” a Congress leader, privy to the repeated outreach from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for some kind of a rapproachment, said.
Gandhi has been telling Opposition leaders, as he said in Parliament in July before famously hugging the prime minister, his single point agenda is to see Modi and Shah ousted, while even a Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh were acceptable as next prime ministers of India. According to a source in Samajwadi Party (SP), Gandhi recently told SP chief Akhilesh Yadav that it was acceptable to him if the Congress was not a part of the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh if it helped defeat Modi and Shah. Gandhi has also come to enjoy much trust among the next generation leadership of his potential allies, including Akhilesh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary, DMK chief Stalin, Nationalist Congress Party’s Supriya Sule, and others.
Within his party, Gandhi warned leaders to speak up on the Rafale fighter jet issue if they foresee a successful career in the Congress. In 2015, Gandhi’s ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ jibe had made Modi government withdraw its land acquisition bill. He has been the foremost critic of Modi government’s ‘Gabbar Singh tax’. In 2016, Gandhi had travelled across Uttar Pradesh as part of his ‘kisan yatra’, where he had promised farm loan waiver. Gandhi has also fostered in the party the need to consult stakeholders in drafting party manifestos and policies. For Gujarat and Chhattisgarh Assembly polls, the Congress manifesto drafting teams consulted hundreds of organisations and thousands of activists.
As a key member of his young team says, the challenge for the party was now to disabuse the youth in large parts of India, particularly in urban areas, who have come to hate the Gandhi family. Ever since the party’s win in the assembly seats, the Congress has launched a campaign to show Gandhi as not just a successful leader, but someone who is also an endearing person. There is an effort to make Gandhi espouse “positive narratives” to show him not merely as an opposition leader adept at bringing down his opponents by spouting the language of the street, with such slogans as “chowkidar chor hai”. For example, Gandhi has taken to posting positive stories of success of unsung Indians on Facebook and Twitter.
The Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India (NSUI) are in the process of launching campaigns to reach out to the youth, to show how their party and its leader have the interest of India's youth close to their hearts. Would the year 2019, as one NSUI campaign states, have the electorate trust Gandhi to lead them into a 'Behtar Bharat'?