How Rahul Gandhi changed the script

Dubai: From a lacklustre leader who once likened power to “poison” and was hardly visible in the political arena to a turbocharged, social media savvy politician willing to singe his political rivals, India’s Rahul Gandhi has come a full circle.

Gandhi, who saw his Prime Minister father and grandmother assassinated, took over as the chief of India’s oldest political party — the Congress — on Saturday from his mother Sonia Gandhi. The Nehru-Gandhi family has ruled India for most of its 70 years since independence from Britain.

A change in Gandhi’s persona could be perceived from the time he addressed the University of California in Berkeley this September. Instead of being apologetic about dynastic rule in India, he argued dynasty runs in every field in India.

Months later, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about to touch down in Ahmedabad for a poll campaign, a Gandhi tweet went off: “Weather report: Ahead of elections, Gujarat will on Monday have rain of rhetoric.” Welcome to Rahul Gandhi 2.0 — unabashed, Teflon-strong and full of humour.

Here are five ways in which Gandhi seems to have reinvented himself:

Witty voice on Twitter

On October 29, Gandhi posted a tweet apparently solving a mystery, with a screenshot of his pet dog Pidi: “[People] been asking who tweets for this guy… I’m coming clean … it’s me Pidi … I’m way [cooler] than him. Look what I can do with a tweet … oops … treat!”

This was accompanied by a 14-second video in which Rahul was seen trying to get Pidi to strike a pose for a namaste (traditional Indian greetings). For someone who was clearly singed by the social media blitzkrieg of Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, to being a Congress president who is ready to look his more politically-accomplished rival in the eye, Rahul’s transformation via the waves of social media has been exponential.

Further signs of change came when he started taking on Modi on Twitter, targeting him with jokes and memes. His newfound voice has caught the attention of both Congress cadres as well as the public, and social media is suddenly kinder to him. His social media department has become more robust under its new chief Divya Spandana, better known as Ramya.

Playing the BJP at its own game

For someone with a Hindu father, a Christian mother and a Parsi grandfather, secularism is more of a way of life than a principle to be espoused in public life for Gandhi.

However, realising that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was an increasing threat in terms of making political capital out of the majority-community’s sentiments, Rahul was not coy to break the mould of a bookish secularist and embark on the path of “soft-Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism).

From Somnath to Kedarnath, Gandhi visited about half a dozen Hindu temples in the run-up to the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections recently. His game plan: to beat the BJP in its game of polarisation, the Congress must show a clearer intent to connect with the majority community.

This is a far cry from the Financial Times editorial a few months back that called Gandhi an “amiable and pleasant fellow who lacks the will to win power or the killer instinct necessary for the cut and thrust of political battle in India”. His supporters argue that he has landed some punches in recent months after a lengthy post-election period during which the BJP appeared unassailable.

New-found political aggression

Both inside and outside the parliament, Gandhi took many a political pundit by surprise with his no-holds-barred aggression against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He had rightly realised that he would have to go for the jugular, sooner than later, if he were to really make his wily, more communicative opponent feel the heat.

As the BJP’s jibes at him became the butt of many a joke in drawing rooms and boardrooms across India, Gandhi too started hitting back with his “Shehzada” (the monarch) and “suit boot ki sarkar” (a government all dressed up for and by the rich) counter-attacks, projecting Modi’s perceived autocracy within the government and his party as a threat to India’s federal structure and its multiparty system.

But whenever necessary, shedding his persona of an angry young man, Gandhi has also manoeuvred himself into the language of love and affection. During a recent election campaign, he declared that he would not say anything against Modi as that would be insulting the post of the prime minister, but “In Gujarat, we will defeat you with love”.

The confident boss…

In the middle of a tense electoral battle in Gujarat, Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s reference to Modi as neech (a lower caste) put the party in a spot. Realising that the BJP wouldn’t waste time to seek political dividend for Modi, Gandhi summarily suspended Aiyar — a party stalwart and a known Gandhi family coterie member — from the party.

With that one decision, Rahul had delivered a terse message: The Congress leadership in 2017 has zero tolerance towards indiscipline and irresponsible behaviour, no matter what. This not only serves as a warning to all those fence-sitters within the Congress party fold who could be testing waters under Gandhi, but also outlines his expectations as a decisive boss.

…And a fallible leader

Which does not mean he is not human! Gandhi readily admitted to a hilarious error he made in one of his tweets. He had made a calculation error in price rise and inflation chart, which soon became a joke on Twitter.

He wasted no time in accepting his mistake publicly, and tweeted: “For all my BJP friends: unlike Narendrabhai, I am human. We do make the odd mistake and that’s what makes life interesting. Thanks for pointing it out and please do keep it coming, it really helps me improve. Love you all.”

And going by the trends of the last several months and particularly during campaigns in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh recently, Rahul has also emerged as a 24X7 Congressman, who eats, sleeps and drinks politics.

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