It was a clever strategy, and it paid off well.
On Thursday, it looked as if Rahul Gandhi’s Mumbai visit might be marred by Sena protests.
It was assumed that he would zip in and out of the city, making his two scheduled stops amid tight security — a symbolic tour to launch the Youth Congress’s membership drive in Mumbai.
By the time Rahul’s four-hour-long visit ended on Friday afternoon, the crown prince of the Congress party had already pulled off a coup of sorts — and won approval from Mumbaiites across the city.
He travelled like them, by suburban train; dropped in at a bank to chat with them; and visited Ramabai Nagar, where 10 Dalits were killed in police firing in 1998, during the Sena-BJP’s rule in the state.
The Sena had tossed him a challenge and he accepted it.
Instead of flying in a chopper, as planned, he drove to Andheri station and took a second-class compartment to Dadar — the Shiv Sena’s den.
Then, he caught another train, for Ghatkopar, chatting with fellow commuters on the way.
This was something the Sena’s strategists had not anticipated. The message that Rahul sought to send was that he was more interested in knowing about the ordinary Mumbaiite than fighting over what the official language of the city should be.
And he got the message across without uttering a word in the media.
“Rahul dominated on Friday by scoring over the Sena as far as public opinion is considered,” said political analyst B. Venkatesh Kumar.
The Sainiks, meanwhile, staged some protests, but it was not enough to disrupt the tour. Senior Sena leaders chose not to participate.
Uddhav Thackeray was brave enough to face the media after Rahul’s visit, but did not have any strong points to make.
The goodwill generated by Rahul’s visit will help the Congress score over the Sena in the ongoing tussle over the ‘Mumbai for Maharashtrians’ issue.
But will it help the party in the long run? “It was a one-off visit in which Rahul tried to re-establish the Gandhi family’s connect with the city,” said Kumar. “How much of this charm translates into support for the party depends on what Ashok Chavan’s government does for the city.”
Significantly, it is not just the Sena that is assessing the damage that the Gandhi scion could cause. The public’s response to the visit will also give the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party some anxious moments, given that the party has been positioning itself as an alternative to the Congress in the state.
The battle for the civic body, with its Rs 20,000-crore budget, has just begun.