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Is the BJP worried about Rahul Gandhi?

Something unusual is happening to Rahul Gandhi’s image, and we might not even have registered it.

Till now, the perception of Rahul has been divided between two extremes. The Bharatiya Janata Party has spent much time and money portraying him as a ‘Pappu’, an entitled dynast who has no real understanding of politics, prefers to go on holidays abroad, and does not have a connect with the people of India.


There is another perception, though it is very much the minority view. There are hardcore Congress supporters who think that Rahul is wonderful, and they abuse anyone who thinks otherwise. They praise his every move and cheer on his every mistake. For them, anyone who engages in the slightest criticism of Rahul is clearly a Modi-lover or sanghi.


   Somewhere between these extremes lies the view of the rest of India. There are those who do not take Rahul seriously and believe that he is incapable of ever being able to occupy any political office of consequence. Many of these people would probably vote for the BJP and Narendra Modi anyway.


   There is an important constituency though — liberal, secular, and not unsympathetic to the Congress — that Rahul has systematically alienated over the last several years. These are people who oppose what the BJP is doing, believe that this government is changing the basic character of India, and are uncomfortable with the idea of turning a secular country into a Hindu Rashtra.


   Such people are also uncomfortable with the idea of dynasty politics and took time to accept that Sonia Gandhi could be an effective leader of the Congress party. And while they were not necessarily hostile to Rahul during the first half of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) time in office, they began to have their doubts about him during UPA II. That was when, in his mother’s absence due to ill health, Rahul failed to achieve much of consequence, threatened to tear up an ordinance, and made a fool of himself during his first TV interview.


   At first, when Narendra Modi was elected as PM in 2014 (after thrashing the Congress in a Lok Sabha election where Rahul spearheaded the campaign), such people believed that the Congress would get its act together and defeat (or at least, seriously damage) the BJP in the next general election. When that did not happen, they began to blame Rahul. Modi succeeds, they said, because nobody takes Rahul seriously.


   And as time went on, the image of Rahul as a stubborn but largely ineffectual leader has come to be accepted by many of those who are unhappy with this government. Rahul’s curious personnel choices, the issues he selected to oppose the government on, his inability to strike up a rapport with other opposition leaders, and the sentiment that he preferred to go off skiing while India burned have come to dominate the way in which he is perceived.


  "It isn’t just liberals who are taking him more seriously now. The BJP has also stepped up its attacks on Rahul."

   Hard as this may be to believe, the people who are most critical of Rahul Gandhi are not die-hard sanghis. They are liberals who believe that Rahul has let the side down. He dramatically resigned as Congress president but continued to run the party as an extra-constitutional dynast. He let no second line of leadership emerge. And when frustrated Congress members raised their voices, he saw this as lèse-majesté and made no attempt to win them over.


  All of this left Rahul lonely and friendless. Treated as a joke by BJP loyalists and as a man who betrayed the liberal cause by potential anti-BJP supporters, he surrounded himself with a coterie of chamchas, listened to nobody, and plotted a road to oblivion.


   That was until a few months ago.


   There is still no way of telling whether Rahul’s popularity has increased enough in the last few months for him to pose any kind of threat to the BJP. But what is clear is that he is winning back the liberal constituency that seemed to have given up on him.


   Much of this has to do with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. We can argue about whether it will have any electoral impact, but there is no doubt that it has finished off the caricature of Rahul as a pappu. Apart from the fact that, for once, he had a clear and simple message to convey — a country divided by hatred must come together with love — he also walked for miles for months on end in a manner that left no one in any doubt that he was serious about politics. He also deployed his greatest asset, one that he rarely lets people see: On a one-on-one level, he comes across as humble and sincere to ordinary people.


   It isn’t just liberals who are taking him more seriously now. The BJP has also stepped up its attacks on Rahul. The over-the-top responses to his UK trip and the deliberate fabrications about what he said there beg the obvious question: If he is, as you say, a pappu, then why do you care so much about him? After all, you have kept telling us that nobody takes him seriously.


   The refusal to let Rahul speak in Parliament, the first attempt to get him thrown out of the Lok Sabha over his remarks in the UK, and then the disqualification at lightning speed following the Surat court verdict, all suggest that for all its sneering, the BJP is worried about Rahul Gandhi.


  All this works to his advantage. For once, he seems to have gotten under the skin of his opponents. The campaign against him has done him a huge favour. The BJP has forgotten that it is always more effective to ridicule your opponent. Once you start targeting him, which may or may not work, you reveal that you are worried about him — he is no longer a figure of fun.


   The BJP’s campaign gives Rahul the credibility to regain the liberal support he lost over the last few years. What he does with this restored credibility is up to him. Already, there have been two missteps. The attack on a media person at a press conference was petty and unnecessary, and the dig about VD Savarkar came out without him thinking through the consequences.


   Previous experience shows us that Rahul doesn’t always use his advantages or his opportunities well. It is too early to predict how things will go.


   But one thing is clear: Rahul Gandhi is in a better position today than he has been in years.



Posted On: 30 Mar 2023 11:17 AM
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