The Making of a New Rahul Gandhi (that makes BJP and Sambit Patra nervous)
By: SEEMA MUSTAFA
NEW DELHI: What does it mean when a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson with by now immense experience on television channels that he frequents on a daily basis, says “Joote se maaro Rahul ko, joote maaro Rahul ko.” Of course he later claims that he wanted to say that traitors–he has still to explain who he was referring to in the correction—should be beaten with shoes. And that he mentioned Rahul “accidentally” but then the Congress President should have not called PM Modi Aurangzeb.
So an apology with an assertion, take it as you like. And clearly the message out to all is that the first statement stands.
Patra’s attack is part of a certain nervousness that seems to have overtaken the BJP, and the hate and the bluster is part of the muscular response as the party knows little else. And this is because Rahul Gandhi has started to pinch, one might even say hurt, the ruling party by bringing in a certain politics that the BJP is finding increasingly difficult to counter. A clear unstated strategy is emerging—from Gujarat through Karnataka, and according to Congress leaders the credit for this can be laid directly at the party president’s door.
One, no abuse or foul language. This has been repeated several times by Rahul Gandhi himself and clear instructions have been issued to counter the BJP hate speech with facts, political arguments, and above all wit. The last is visible in the social media campaign of the Congress party with hard hitting humour that the rather humourless BJP is finding difficult, rather impossible to counter. Hence, the “accident” with Patra unable to counter Rahul Gandhi whose presence on the social media has grown dramatically since the tone and tenor of his tweets moved into delightful humour, and the BJP seeing in this a ‘threat’ insofar as its official propaganda is concerned. All it had been able to do was to define the Congress president as “Pappu” in his earlier avataar but since Gujarat this term is finding few takers outside the BJP and its specific supporters. Rahul Gandhi seems to have firmly shaken this particular tag off, with the BJP floundering to find a substitute.
Two, no arrogance. The Congress president accused by his own party leaders of disinterest bordering on arrogance, or vice versa, has brought in a new style of functioning that keeps his doors fairly open. There have been no complaints for several months now, in fact quite the reverse with the Congress leaders admitting that he is far more accessible now. This absence of arrogance is in full play in dealing with the regional parties, as a result of which new regional alliances are at least emerging.
In Gujarat Rahul Gandhi personally handled the party’s relationship with the three state leaders Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor who joined the Congress party. The other two continue to work in close association with the Congress in the state and elsewhere.
The Karnataka alliance with the Janata Dal (U) is seen as Rahul Gandhi’s handiwork, as is the new thrust in Bihar where he has directed his party to support the young Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejaswi Yadav to the hilt.
In Uttar Pradesh too the Congress seems to be willing to let Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav take the lead, with the party at least from Delhi not pushing its weight where it has none. This approach has opened the doors to the beginnings of a larger Opposition alliance with even the regional parties wary of BJP and Congress hegemony being wooed assiduously. Again an indication of this is the Congress willingness to support a Mamata Banerjee candidate for the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, even though it has the bigger numbers in the Upper House. The earlier Congress would not have accepted any such compromise.
Three, a new team. Without giving his new style of functioning labels or publicity Rahul Gandhi has established a certain system that has been visible in both Gujarat and Karnataka. While the elder Congress leaders are very much part of the chain, it is the younger team that is pushed into the states for preliminary assessments and campaign work to start with. There are specific teams for ground feedback as in Gujarat for instance where candidates were changed on the basis of such information.
In Karnataka the research team played a valuable role in studying political behaviour and feeding into the strategy evolved for the state. It is fairly clear cut with Congress leaders, such as Rajeev Gowda, being given specific charge and the freedom to bring in their own teams for the purpose assigned. This has helped determine the talking points during the campaign, for the state and for specific constituencies with even the daily press conferences by different party leaders following a certain methodology.
Four, a public style that is in direct contrast with that of PM Modi. This is not incidental, it is deliberate. In fact has been so shaped. In that while he does not score on oratory where Modi is far ahead, on other aspects his managers and advisors have been working hard. Rahul Gandhi meets the media all the time, unlike the PM. He moves amongst the people in a manner that is easy and informal, again very unlike the PM. And in every campaign the Congress now ensures that Rahul Gandhi has smaller interactions as his impact on such audiences is assessed as excellent. More so, as the Prime Minister is not comfortable with intimate groups and prefers speaking from a pulpit.
Rahul Gandhi’s personality itself —smiling, easy, diffident–lends itself to small group discussions. In Karnataka specific discussions were also organised by the teams for other visiting party leaders such as Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh with sections of the intelligentsia.
In fact his advisors have managed to turn what were showcased by the BJP and others as Rahul Gandhi’s weaknesses to strengths by carefully crafting a campaign style that works for him. Laced with humour of course, but also a hard direct approach that makes him call a spade a spade and often be first off the Opposition block to do so. In the process he leads the response, and does not follow what other political parties might be saying. And this has contributed to changing the image of the Congress as well, that is seen as more fighting fit and alert now than it was say even a year ago.
Five, the Congress president’s ability to listen. He talks and listens and plans and strategises. And does so in a very meticulous manner that old Congressmen were dismissive off when Sonia Gandhi was the party president, but which the young team that is now in charge as well finds not just refreshing but easier to work with. He speaks the language of the younger generation, and after considerable jostling and resistance has managed to build a new team in the hope of building a new party minus the dead wood that had accumulated for decades. And developed vested interests that were difficult to dislodge.
The BJP has realised this and more, and hence the anger and the hate speech against the Congress and pointedly Rahul Gandhi who has managed to win over the regional parties into a loose understanding that is visible now in Parliament, and has been evident in the functioning in states. This then becomes the first step to collect the 69% that did not vote for the BJP in 2014 and put it into a favourable political shape.