by Deepak Kaistha__
BJP propaganda machinery ran roughshod over Rahul Gandhi and the Congress initially. Now the hunters have become the hunted, as Rahul Gandhi is the most potent threat to Modi’s re-election bid in 2019.
“Congress thinks the Prime Minister’s chair is Pappu’s birthright. But this is a democracy, you need people’s blessings, and people’s blessings are with Narendra Modi.”
Amit Shah, then aide of Gujarat CM and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made these remarks in 2013, at a rally in Allahabad. His rhetoric represented the BJP’s general approach to Rahul Gandhi at that time – a reluctant & dumb politician, an anointed aristocrat, a dysfunctional dynast and a failed leader on all counts.
Facing the debilitating weight of anti-incumbency, the Congress seemed like a rudderless and leaderless ship in 2014 in front of the Modi’s blitzkrieg ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ campaign. After Modi’s election victory in 2014, BJP and his supporters have invested a humungous amount of time and energy behind the ‘Pappu’ brand, ostensibly to ensure that Rahul and the Congress never recovered. Several jokes, memes and edited videos have flooded social media, branding Rahul Gandhi as unfit and stupid, calling him Rahul Baba, Pappu and even Shehzada.
Buoyed by the Congress’s relative absence from social media till mid-2015 (with the notable exception of Shashi Tharoor), the perception game largely swung one way – Modi was the guy with the 56” chest; Rahul was simply the ‘incompetent fool’ and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (and by extension the Congress) was responsible for all of India’s present day problems. It almost seemed that Rahul Gandhi was Modi’s greatest asset in his bid for re-election for a second term in 2019.
Cut to the present and watch Rahul Gandhi lead the opposition’s charge on the BJP on the Rafale deal in Parliament over last week. One can’t help but wonder how that ‘asset’ has become a serious political liability for the BJP over the past three and a half years.
The game changer after months of BJP’s free run on the propaganda mills was Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament in April 2015. Amidst mocking by BJP MPs on his two-month sabbatical, Rahul Gandhi made an impassioned speech where he accused the BJP of being the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’(favouring industrialists over the common man) while talking about farmer issues. This was also in reference to Modi’s monogrammed suit during Barack Obama’s visit earlier (eventually auctioned for Rs 4.31 crore).
That speech was the beginning of the evolution of Rahul as a counterweight to Modi. The clear mind space that the Congress wanted to occupy was that it is a party for the masses and BJP was only concerned about the elites.
Rahul also took the BJP’s personal attacks on him in good spirit, and turned the tables against them by saying that he is human and makes mistakes unlike Modi. He used this analogy to good effect for instance when he chided Modi for not accepting that Demonetisation was a mistake, “Had it been the Congress, it would have admitted immediately that it was a mistake and worked to rectify it. We are human, we make mistakes but Modiji thinks he is a reincarnation of God, he can’t make mistakes.” Considering how Modi carries himself and how he is generally perceived by his most ardent followers, the statement does strike a chord.
This core positioning has been strengthened through various campaigns over time. Rahul’s punchlines are far more direct and hard hitting unlike earlier ones like ‘India is a beehive’, ‘Dalits need an escape velocity’ and ‘poverty is a state of mind’.
Rafale is obviously top of mind right now, where Modi is accused of an unholy nexus with Anil Ambani. With the punchline ‘Chowkidaar Chor hai’, Rahul has made a direct personal attack on the Prime Minister’s claim of being the ‘chowkidaar’ of the country. He called the Demonetisation exercise a ‘Fair & Lovely Scheme’ and GST as the ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’. Referring to corruption allegations against Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, he called the latter ‘Shah’zada and the greatest icon of (Modi’s) Startup India!
Rahul has raised highly relevant issues against the government, including price rise, unemployment, farmer distress and trader unrest. He also referred to the BJP as Kauravas fighting for power and the Congress as the Pandavas fighting for truth.
Rahul has also been more forthcoming on the campaign trail, and ready to engage with the common people, just as he is actively engaging with NRIs overseas. He has also presented his engagement with the media as a counter to Modi, who he accuses of only doing ‘staged interviews’ and not doing press conferences. For instance, he taunted Modi for not being able to answer a BJP worker’s question on the state of the middle class during a party booth level video conference on December 19, 2018. One finds an interesting resemblance to Modi’s criticism of Dr. Manmohan Singh for being a ‘silent PM’ during the UPA era.
Wearing disheveled kurta pajamas is a smart strategy to lend credence to his pro-poor positioning (as opposed to the Modi suit mentioned earlier) and projection of a ‘karyakarta’ image. Rahul’s electoral track record was often contrasted with Modi earlier. But from earlier defeats in states like Uttar Pradesh & Goa, the transformation is visible in Congress’ comeback in the Gujarat elections, formation of a government in Karnataka and victories in Punjab and more recently the key ‘Hindi belt’ states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These could not have come at a better time for the party, puncturing Amit Shah’s unrealistically bold prediction of BJP retaining power for the next 50 years.
Rahul Gandhi’s evolution after becoming President of the Congress Party has been even more impressive. After the BJP caught the Congress napping in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya, Rahul gave Amit Shah a taste of his own medicine in Karnataka by knocking the doors of the Supreme Court at midnight (after the Governor gave BJP the first opportunity to form the government) and letting HD Kumaraswamy become CM despite the JD (S) being way behind in number of seats won. The result was that the BJP state government led by Y S Yeddyurappa had to resign within 48 hours of being sworn in.
He has also been able to manage the internal party politics better than anticipated. Rahul wished to inculcate a lot more young blood in the Congress Working Committee but eventually maintained a balance between the young and the old. This is also evident in his decisions to keep the old guard in charge in Madhya Pradesh (Kamal Nath) and Rajasthan (Ashok Gehlot), while ensuring there was no rift with Madhav Rao Scindia and Sachin Pilot respectively. Rahul knows that both veterans and youth will be important in his battle vs the BJP in 2019, since the latter is heavily funded and well networked.
One cannot of course ignore the exceptional turnaround of Rahul on social media. Changing his handle from the impersonal ‘@OfficeofRG’ to the more direct ‘@RahulGandhi’ in 2015 was only the beginning. Modi, who started much earlier in 2009, is still the most followed leader with 44.7 million followers but Rahul is steadily gaining with 8.09 million followers. Moreover on engagement parameters like replies per tweet and likes per tweet, Rahul is actually overtaking Modi. He has more than 8,000 retweets and 30,000 likes per tweet compared to less than 4,000 retweets and 15,000 likes per tweet for the PM. Even on replies per tweet, Rahul is far better with 3,500 compared to 1,000 for Modi.
Rahul’s ability to hog the limelight of late has definitely put the BJP and its supporters on the backfoot. The highlight of this was really the famous Rahul-Modi hug in Parliament in July 2018. The tactic was reportedly a carefully planned one in response to the BJP’s relentless campaign against Rahul and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – positioning Congress’ politics of ‘love’ with BJP’s politics of ‘hate’. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples and his declaration of being a ‘janeu-dhari Brahmin’ to counter the propaganda of Congress being anti-Hindu has pushed BJP leaders into a corner, compelling them to question his Hindu credentials.
The most critical element of Rahul’s transformation is that he has not backed down from questioning and holding the Modi government accountable for its policies. He has done this relentlessly in the face of continued personal attacks by the BJP.
In Elections 2014, political upstart Arvind Kejriwal (who’s AAP eventually won 4 seats) was a more effective challenge to Modi on the national stage as compared to Rahul, which doesn’t speak well for either of them. The Modi vs Rahul battle was talked about, but was a non-starter at that stage.
But in Elections 2019, the Modi vs Rahul battle is real, and it is evident that the ‘incumbent’ Modi government is struggling for ways to target Rahul Gandhi. This bluster in BJP ranks was on full display in Parliament this week, when the Finance Minister Mr Arun Jaitley and then Defence Minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman questioned Rahul’s ‘intellect’, but could not shake his resolve.
The transformation of Rahul is a phenomenon that even his worst critics would openly deride but tacitly acknowledge. Brand Modi still holds sway on the national stage, but the ‘incumbent’ BJP knows for sure that with Rahul in the opposition, victory in the 2019 elections is not as much of a ‘done deal’ as it once appeared. After all, the BJP’s vote share was at around 31% in the 2014 elections (incidentally the lowest vote share ever for a single party majority), which is largely expected to fall in 2019. The consequences of that across the country could bring the BJP’s worst nightmare to life.
The people’s blessings were with Narendra Modi & the BJP in 2014. Under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress, the tide has shifted significantly. With a smartly stitched alliance of opposition parties, Rahul may actually hand BJP the defeat that it never saw coming.