It was not easy for Rahul Gandhi to keep the Congress old guard off the stage at the recently concluded plenary session. He met with strong resistance from the seniors in the party when he suggested that all of them sit on the chairs below, along with the party workers. They couldn’t comprehend a seating arrangement like that. They argued it is a 133-year-old tradition, which exists so the workers can see them, and that they cannot have their backs to the workers. None of the arguments cut any ice with Rahul. Putting his foot down, he said everybody, including him, are workers of the party. And with this, the Congress president put his stamp not only on the plenary proceedings, but also on the party—quite in keeping with the theme “Change is Now”. There were no further arguments as the younger leaders took centrestage with structured discussions on issues like social justice, Vision-2020 and the state of the media. The visual symbolism was meant to reset the dynamics, with him at the centre of course.
“Rahul wanted it to be like the convention of a democratic party and not a gathering of some men and women, seated on an elevated stage, pontificating to disconnected workers,” says Sam Pitroda, a long-time associate of the Gandhi family, who worked closely with the party president in organising the plenary along with Priyanka Gandhi. He was also a close associate of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, shaping the developments in the IT sector. He now heads the party’s overseas department, and organises Rahul’s international outreach and visits abroad.
Rahul with Sushma Swaraj and PM Modi (far left); with cyclone victims in Kanyakumari last year (left); at the recent plenary session in Delhi
Rahul handled the old guard respectfully but firmly, and gently but decidedly propped up his team of young leaders. With the stage empty of people, the limelight remained on Rahul as he delivered one of his most gladiatorial speeches. He looked at ease taking on PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. A combative and confident Rahul mocked the PM, ridiculed the RSS and its role in the freedom struggle, questioned its concept of nationhood, attacked the BJP’s “divisive Hindutva politics” and referred to Shah as a “murder accused”.
Though even his party colleagues admit he may have gone a little overboard with his comparison of PM Modi with fraudsters Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi. “It was probably not a good idea to paint the entire Modi community with the same brush, but then the PM has shown us that such gimmicks work on the ground,” says a young Congressman. “And our leader is not averse to playing to the gallery.” Rahul is not letting any opportunity to attack Modi pass him by. Reacting to reports of increasing Chinese presence in Doklam, Rahul tweeted: “How will Modi ji react this time? *Hugplomacy *Blame RM *Cry in public *All of the above.”
The stage is clearly set for a no-holds-barred faceoff. There is little room for doubt now on whether Rahul would lead his party into the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and he has shown he can take on Modi and the BJP at their own game—entering the debate on Hinduism, Bharatiyata, mythology and reclaiming the icons of freedom struggle, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. The strategy will be tested in the upcoming Karnataka polls—Rahul’s biggest test since taking over as party president. Karnataka is the largest of the four states that still have a Congress government. With Amit Shah vowing to wrest it from the Congress, Rahul is on an extensive campaign trail in the state.
“Rahul may be combative, but he is hostile to the idea of trolling on social media. His instructions to office-bearers are clear: trolling won’t be tolerated,” Congress communication in-charge Randeep Surjewala tells Outlook. When he suspended senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is like family to him, he sent a tough message. We don’t want to be like the BJP, which tries to overpower truth with repeated lies.”
Inclusive Hinduism vs Divisive Hindutva
On what the BJP contemptuously calls Rahul’s “politically driven temple run”, Surjewala says it won’t stop. “What’s wrong in visiting temples or other religious places?” he asks. After all, Rahul isn’t the first Congress chief to visit temples. Rahul’s grandmother, late prime minister Indira Gandhi, used to visit temples and always wore a rudraksha necklace. His father Rajiv Gandhi too sought blessings at various temples. “Why is there such a fuss over Rahul’s religiosity? He visited temples earlier too. It’s just that, with Hindutva becoming central to the country’s political discourse, Rahul’s visits are being noticed and talked about,” says Surjewala. “Rahul wants to be the representative of real India—assimilative, inclusive and pluralistic. Unlike Hindutva, which the RSS propagates, Hinduism as a philosophy respects all religions.”
In fact, when Rahul visited Sharadamba temple in Sringeri in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur on March 21, he was following in the footsteps of his grandmother. In 1978, the year after the Congress was ousted from power at the Centre in the general elections following the end of the Emergency, Indira contested the Chikmagalur bypolls. That’s when she sought the blessings of the priests at the temple and went on to win—a victory that revived her political career.
Congress leaders candidly admit that in Rahul’s case as well, there is expectation of electoral gains to be made in the process. One of the younger leaders working closely with Rahul recalls an animated discussion with him before the Gujarat polls last year about the reasons why the BJP won election after election. “The ground reports show that the middle class, traders, professionals and even students are unhappy with the Modi-led government. So what makes the BJP win? The unpleasant answer was the Hindutva card the party plays so well. There is nothing except the politics of polarisation,” the young leader tells Outlook. That was the time when Rahul became convinced about the need for demonstrative Hinduism.
“He believes the BJP doesn’t have a copyright on Hinduism,” the leader continues. “RG makes it a point to remind us that we should not allow the BJP to appropriate Hinduism or the colour saffron, or to project itself as a saviour of Indian culture.” Indeed, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi has been seen sporting shades of orange more than once. Even Sonia Gandhi recently admitted the BJP had managed to convince people that the Congress is a “Muslim party”. She said they all visited temples earlier too, but are doing it more publicly now because of the narrative that the BJP has built.
Rahul’s invocation of the Mahabharata at the plenary, and later at a Mangalore rally, was in the same vein. The Gandhi scion used the same symbolism of mythology and scriptures that the BJP uses. “The difference is that he uses the symbols to denote pluralism and convey the oneness of India, while the BJP has used them to create divisions,” says Surjewala. And as senior leader Digvijay Singh puts it, “pluralism, secularism and social justice are articles of faith for the Congress, from the time of Mahatma Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi”.
Rahul vs Modi
The Congress is trying to project Rahul as an antithesis to Modi—amiable versus arrogant, reasonable versus unreasonable, inclusive versus intolerant, democratic versus authoritarian. “We don’t have to try too hard,” says a party leader. “RG lends himself easily to the nice guy image. He can be disarming with his honesty as he admits the Congress made mistakes and let people down. Can you imagine the PM or the BJP president publicly conceding a mistake?”
Referring to Rahul’s tweet that his dog Pidi—“way smarter” than him—tweeted for him, the leader says such self-deprecating humour prevents the party president from becoming pompous and too full of himself. On a serious note, Rahul had revealed that he gives considered suggestions on issues to his communication team, which fine-tunes the content before posting it on Twitter. A more self-assured Rahul has now claimed complete ownership of his Twitter handle by changing it from @OfficeOfRG to @RahulGandhi.
Coming of Age
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Rahul. “Through a concerted and unrelenting campaign, the BJP and its supporters have projected him as someone he is not,” says Pitroda. “He has been given derogatory names. Subramanian Swamy, for example, claims Rahul is not educated.” Describing Rahul as a thinking, earnest young man, who reads a lot, Pitroda rues that it is difficult to fight lies in India and win a war of perception as there is too much noise and hype.
“Rahul is an innate knowledge-seeker,” says another confidant. “He goes into minute details of issues. If he is reading about aircraft, then he goes into the nuts and bolts. Once we were talking about the Sukhoi aircraft and he surprised me with his detailed technical knowledge on the subject.”
Rahul, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and other leaders at the recent plenary session
To project the “real Rahul”, Pitroda organised a series of foreign trips for the Congress president, starting from the University of California in Berkeley, where his great grandfather Nehru had addressed a crowd of 10,000 people in 1949. “Rahul was forthcoming and refreshingly candid. He was at complete ease and got a great response,” says Pitroda.
Rahul followed up the US trip with visits to Bahrain, Singapore and Malaysia. He addressed NRIs, and met businessmen, government leaders and students. He didn’t just talk about what’s wrong with India under Modi, but also elaborated on his vision for the party and the country. “The atmosphere is so vitiated in India that Rahul actually had to go out to speak to a global audience and send the message to people here,” says a close associate. “These trips have done him a lot of good in terms of exposure to opinions and technological advances abroad—and let him breathe easy, away from the constant vicious trolling.”
Senior party leaders have seen the change in Rahul over the past few years. “His campaigning style is more confident now,” admits a leader known for being critical of Rahul. “His connect with the public is much better, as is his rapport with party insiders. Earlier, people coming to him to be heard invariably went back having had to listen more. Now he listens and is able to offer solutions and solid advice.”
Rahul’s style of functioning and search for talent among the younger lot have earned him a band of loyalists. Aditi Singh, 30, who fought and won her first assembly polls from Rae Bareli in 2017, says she is proud of calling Rahul her leader. Aditi’s father Akhilesh Singh, five-time MLA from the same seat, had won the last two elections on a Peace Party ticket, but wanted her to join the Congress, his former party. When an unsure Aditi was waiting in the rain for her car after her first meeting with Rahul, he came out with an umbrella and stood with her. “That was it. I decided the Congress is the party for me,” she recalls. “The way he has dealt with controversies, especially in the past three-four years, is impressive. Any other person would have been demoralised and become bitter, but he holds on to his idealism and his vision of a non-divisive and inclusive India.”
According to the first-time MLA, Rahul relies on the advice of the seniors even while promoting a young leadership. “He combines the energy of the youth with the experience of the elders,” she says. Several other leaders aver that Rahul doesn’t think twice before consulting the old guard. He is said to be in regular touch with former prime minister Manmohan Singh. “Within the party, he also consults people like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot, Mallikarjun Kharge and A.K. Antony. But he has no qualms about seeking advice from leaders outside the party too, such as Sharad Pawar and Sharad Yadav,” reveals an office-bearer.
“I was a grassroots worker in Jaunpur in eastern UP,” says youth leader Nadeem Javed, who counts himself as one of Rahul’s loyalists. “I do not belong to a political family and come from a village 12 km from the tehsil headquarters. RG gave me the chance to come into the Delhi structure and, in 2012, he asked me, ‘Nadeem, chunav ladna hai?’ (Do you want to contest elections?) I was surprised, but he reposed faith in me and I won.” Nadeem lost his seat last year, but Rahul spotted the talent in him and gave him the opportunity to “anchor” the inaugural session of the plenary.
“I was called the night before the opening session and told that I have to conduct it along with Sushmita Dev. It is one of the most crucial sessions, involving a lot of technicalities. It was a challenge, but we did it,” he says with some pride. Earlier, senior leaders like Janardhan Dwivedi and Mukul Wasnik used to conduct that session.
Sushmita, MP from Silchar and recently appointed the Mahila Congress head, is all praise for Rahul. “He recognises the challenges before the Congress,” she says. “Every state will need to fight a much bigger battle against the RSS and the BJP, for which we need a mix of great leaders and good cadres. Today, people may feel disenchanted with the BJP, but they need substantive reasons to vote for us. We will create a counter-narrative based on the larger philosophy that religion and politics don’t mix.”
Senior leader and Sonia’s long-time political secretary Ahmed Patel says, “Rahul will lead the party not only to face the BJP, but also confront the challenges the country is facing. I am sure he will be able to use the energy of the youngsters and experience of the seniors.”
Rajya Sabha MP and Congress leader M.V. Rajeev Gowda points out that the party had created departments earlier, and is now building a well-networked, knowledge-generating outfit that will give parliamentary support, counter the government and fix accountability. “Rahul is an institution-builder and big on accountability,” he says. The task of preparing electoral manifestos, doing post-election analysis and ideating for the future are taking on a critical role within the party. There is a strongly felt need for public re-education—to counter the propaganda, for instance, on the Gujarat model and the demonisation of older generations of Congress leaders. “That’s the new, emerging Congress. It is the same framework, but much more concentrated on accountability. The changes may seem subtle, but they will make a big difference,” sums up Gowda.
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora in New Delhi with inputs from Pragya Singh