Has Rahul Baba transformed himself into Baba Rahul? Enlightened and enriched by his sabbatical and going all out to signal his intent to motivate, inspire and lead?
There is little doubt that for the first time in more than a decade since he entered active politics in 2004, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has come across, not as a dynast, but a politician.
In less than a fortnight since his return from wherever he had gone for whatever purpose, the Amethi MP has returned, and packed in more in this short span than he had as an MP of 11 years in Parliament so far.
It’s an impressive checklist.
Immediately after his much ridiculed sojourn, he a) interacted with delegations of farmers at his residence, b) addressed a massive farmers rally in Delhi, c) accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government of insensitivity towards the farmers in Parliament, d) trekked to Kedarnath to serve the twin purposes of underlining its safety for tourists and the party’s soft Hindutva line, e) took a train ride to Punjab to commiserate with the agriculturalists, f) returned to raise their problems in the Lok Sabha and g) go on a padyatra in Maharashtra to empathise with the distressed farmers.
In between, he flagged the issue of net neutrality in the Lower House.
For a leader who had less than half a dozen outings in Parliament during the tenures of both UPA I and UPA II, it has been a power packed performance and nothing short of a ‘wow’ moment for Congress members, both within and outside Parliament, who have been looking at their top leaders to take them out of the morass the party finds itself in.
Rahul makes calls for Priyanka redundant
Already Rahul’s apparent transformation has induced at least three immediate spinoffs.
One, it has, for the time being, silenced all those who were shooting at him from his mother’s shoulders. An entire phalanx of leaders had gone on record to say that Sonia Gandhi should continue as party chief when the organizational elections take place.
It was their way of hinting that he lacks credibility with them and does not enjoy their confidence. Some like former chief ministers like Sheila Dikshit in Delhi or Capt Amarinder Singh in Punjab had gone so far as to openly say that the status quo should remain and Rahul should continue to get himself groomed for a future role under his mother.
Even senior leader Kamal Nath who had earlier lamented that Sonia would refer him to Rahul and vice versa whenever he would approach either of them with a problem, admitted that the reinvigorated Rahul has boosted the morale of the Congress workers.
And if Rahul maintains his transformation, all the voices that have been questioning his leadership qualities will keep silent when Sonia, in accordance with her plans, anoints him either president or working president as part of a generational change in a couple of months from now.
Two, and perhaps equally importantly, Rahul’s transformation has made all the slogan-shouting for a greater role for Priyanka Gandhi redundant for the moment.
Much like those who wanted the status quo to remain by swearing their allegiance to Sonia’s leadership, Congressmen calling for Priyanka’s entry into active politics have been doing it to express their support for the Gandhi family as much as to subtly convey that they would not like to be led by Rahul whose track record as a leader has been one long list of failures.
But a revamped Rahul has given them heart. And they are likely to put their call for Priyanka on the hold until he falters again.
The issue at heart, as one Congress leader put it, is not so much that the party lost elections repeatedly but the fact that Rahul always came across as a half leader, who was unwilling to put his entire heart, soul and time into politics.
And thirdly, the old guard which was shooting from its hips is increasingly beginning to accept that a change of guard is inevitable and along with it, a generational change in the organization. Already, it is the younger lot of MPs and workers who are getting to play an important role. It is the young ones who accompany Rahul when he travels or form a ring around him when he speaks in Parliament.
Increasingly, the new and articulate lot, ranging from Sushmita Deb to Gaurav Gogoi or Rajeev Gowda, is being fielded as spokespersons. “It is in the nature of things that the new generation will take over from the old,’’ remarked a senior leader who was part of the inner circle of Sonia’s aides.
Transformed or transient?
But much will depend on whether Rahul’s new style and his new-found zeal is here to stay or becomes a flash in the pan.
The next few days and months will show whether the Amethi MP has it in him to sustain his new avatar. After all, in the decade that he has been in politics, the Gandhi-Nehru scion has packaged and repackaged himself so many times that the real Rahul got lost in the medley.
He was a dimpled fresher, a youth icon, an insatiable learner out to discover the country and a reformer seeking to revamp the party only to end up creating an impression that he was confused, unsure and a shirker of responsibility for refusing to join the Manmohan Singh government when the party was in power, or to lead the party from the front in the Lok Sabha where its numbers had been ruthlessly slashed by the electoral outcome.
Rahul’s style of functioning, his disconnect with the workers and the voters and his penchant to disappear from the scene when his presence was required, only made things worse for him and his party.
It did his image no good that the Congress lost a series of elections under him, which meant that he was increasingly seen as a leader who has failed his supporters and whatever was left of the party.
And when he did a Houdini and vanished for close to two months to ‘introspect’ on the state the party was in, he invited ridicule.
His performances since his return have been a vast improvement on his previous roles. It now it remains to be seen if he will be the 24×7 politician that his party needs.
From a reluctant to a ready politician?
For a change, Rahul has signaled that he is not the reluctant politician that he was known to be. Indeed, in his recent outings, he seemed to relish his new avatar–in Parliament he was unfazed by repeated interruptions, ready with his repartees and all set to go for the jugular with his allegatiosn of a ‘udyogpathiyan’ and ‘suit boot’ ki sarkar.
He was direct, sharp and focused in his attack; he did not deviate from the central theme of farmers’ distress and did not ramble on as he had done, for instance, at the CII and FICCI platforms in 2013 or in his television interviews before the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
He chose to be all fire and brimstone at the Ramlila Ground rally without rolling up his sleeves. There was an element of crafted spontaneity in his parliamentary interventions as he alternated between being sarcastic, sardonic, caustic and humorous quite unlike his previously clinically rehearsed and stilted attempts.
So is a new Rahul emerging out of the debris of the pre and post-2014 Lok Sabha electoral reverses which left the Congress with only 44 seats in the Lower House and swept it out of several state assemblies? Or is he metamorphosing only to deceive?
His critics will doubt if the 44-year-old leader has actually transformed himself. His supporters are keeping their fingers crossed that the Rahul they have just seen remains so–more so, since he might well be their new party chief in the organizational polls in September.
While the Amethi MP remains on test, there is a broad agreement that he has earned the benefit of the doubt for himself for the time being. And Rahul perhaps is also aware of the skepticism about his new persona. Judge me by my conduct and performance, he told reporters in Punjab.