Rahul Gandhi’s decision to finally lay himself bare to tough questioning on television is a welcome one. His interview with a news channel, aired on Monday, was the first he has given in a decade in active politics, and is understood to be just the beginning of a media blitz that will see the Gandhi scion in the arc-lights and in newspaper pages as never before. It is only fair that voters know what they are voting for. The Congress’ decision not to name Mr Gandhi as its PM candidate was a defensive move calculated to avoid a presidential-style face-off with the formidable BJP prizefighter Narendra Modi. But India is under no illusion that in the event of the Congress being in a position to form a government, Mr Gandhi will be the PM. After all, he has said he will do what his MPs want, and Congress MPs seldom want anyone other than a Gandhi, if one is available. After giving a strong speech at the All India Congress Committee session earlier this month, the Congress vice-president’s performance in the interview was a let-down, widely lampooned on social media and panned by critics. He was repetitive much of the time, unconvincing at others, and sometimes evaded a direct answer, notably when asked on corruption cases against Ashok Chavan and Virbhadra Singh. Television can be harsh and there were no kid gloves on view; the famously reluctant politician often looked lost and sought refuge in his pet ideas of empowerment and inner party democracy.
Mr Gandhi was at his best when speaking of the subjects he is genuinely passionate about, and his sincerity was unmistakable when he spoke of reforming politics and bringing transparency to the system. His protestation that he still believes his line that “power is poison” was convincing enough. He even described himself as “an anomaly” in the current environment, something that may resonate with those seeking a new sort of politics. As he heads for the first general election where he is in charge, Mr Gandhi finds himself sandwiched between two rival politicians — Mr Modi and Arvind Kejriwal — who have the grabbed the initiative and left the Congress looking leaden-footed and resigned to woeful election returns. He has the unenviable task of lifting the party by the bootstraps and making it believe it can win, or at least get to a position where it can exert some influence in the 16th Lok Sabha.
A cogent and powerful performance in his next interview would be a vital step in this exercise. One takeaway for the BJP: Whatever the verdict on Mr Gandhi’s showing, at least he agreed to be grilled. Will Mr Modi — a consummate performer when addressing mass rallies — now allow media interviewers to put him on the spot?