A key handicap for the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was the image of Rahul Gandhi, particularly when contrasted with the BJP candidate, Narendra Modi.
The latter came across as a confident leader, a performer, an articulate and powerful orator, a man who had a plan for the nation and meant business. Gandhi came across as inexperienced and disinterested, less than coherent (remember the disastrous Times Now television interview?), and a man who was where he was only because of the circumstances of his birth but had little to offer to the citizens beyond platitudes. The contest was presidential, and Gandhi – as the de-facto candidate of the Congress – paled in comparison. The ‘Pappu’ image stuck.
Among those responsible for projecting the contest as a binary between Modi and Gandhi, and projecting Gandhi as weak, was Modi’s then strategist, Prashant Kishor. It is thus a supreme irony that Kishor today has the opposite task – of re-projecting Gandhi as a capable leader who can lead a Congress revival.
After his mysterious sabbatical last year, there were glimmers of change in the Rahul Gandhi that India witnessed.
His ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ jibe at the Modi government hit where it hurt the most, and the government became deeply worried about being seen as pro-rich. This had such a deep impact that even the strongly pro-rural thrust in the recent budget is being attributed to the comment and the effort by the government to transform its image. Gandhi also gave a clear political signal that his party would oppose the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act – his mother, Sonia, led the march in central Delhi against it; and his party colleagues built up the intellectual argument against the changes and broadened the political alliance. The Congress succeeded in forcing the government to roll back.
Gandhi took a strong stand in favour of a Nitish Kumar-led government, which sent a signal to Lalu Prasad when he was negotiating hard in the run-up to the alliance in Bihar.
In the past few months, Gandhi has stepped up his engagement with young people in universities. He visited Hyderabad immediately after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. And he visited Jawaharlal Nehru University a few days after the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar – to express solidarity with the struggle of the students against the crackdown and charges of sedition.
There were many in the party not comfortable with it – NSUI, the student outfit, felt, given that Kanhaiya was a Left student leader, the party had little to gain from making him a hero. Others felt the BJP’s attempt to project Rahul Gandhi as supporting ‘anti-nationals’ may work in the Hindi heartland – and so he should have been more cautious. But Gandhi’s support for the JNU students stayed firm. And on Wednesday, in his parliamentary speech, Gandhi spoke about the national flag not as a piece of cloth but of relationships and conversations, introducing a new idea of nationalism in the current debate.
Two caveats are essential here.
Gandhi has made interventions in the past too, on issues ranging from Dalit welfare to tribal rights. The problem has been this is more is the nature of guest appearances. His interest appears sporadic; he does not seem to have the political stamina to invest deeply in an issue, understand it in all dimensions, and stay with it. Whether this fundamental element of his personality has changed or not is yet to be seen.
The other problem is his communication. Clear, structured communication is a sign of clear, structured thinking. Gandhi’s speeches have often been unfocused. He may pick the right themes – welfare of the poorest, communal harmony, free speech, need for consultative decision-making at the centre – but his ability to remain focused on the message is still uncertain. This reflects scattered and shallow thinking.
It is too early to judge Prashant Kishor’s impact on Gandhi’s politics. He has only this week come on board to help Congress win future state elections, and rebrand the Congress leader. Sources, however, suggest he had been having informal conversations with Gandhi for a few months now, and has been passing on inputs.
For Kishor, the key challenge is in ensuring that Gandhi picks the right political themes and stays with it – and that he has a more coherent communication strategy. Disappearing act cannot continue. Sporadic interventions, with no follow up, cannot be a substitute for sustained political engagement. A speech, riddled with abstractions and digressions, cannot hold the attention of an impatient and aware citizenry, and only reduces a speaker to an object of mockery.
Engaging in the cut and thrust of public debates – through media engagements or social media – cannot be avoided any longer. There are changes but these remain inadequate – whether the Rahul Gandhi of 2019 can be a radical departure from Rahul Gandhi of 2014 is the big question? Kishor has his task cut out.