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Can Rahul Gandhi’s Berkeley vigour carry him through to Bareilly?

Rahul Gandhi’s Berkeley speech has given the Congress a reason to be cheerful after a long time. And it comes at a time when the perception that there is growing dissatisfaction with the BJP is fast gaining ground.

analysis Updated: Sep 21, 2017 09:42 IST
Rahul Gandhi,Congress,Berkeley
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley(PTI)

Going by reports coming in from the United States, Rahul Gandhi is making quite an impression there, at least in academic, policy and journalistic circles. Narendra Modi’s 2014 trip was marked by big-ticket shows like the one in which he addressed thousands of NRIs in Madison Square Garden. Gandhi, however, maintained a low-key presence and spoke on policy issues, India and China, the social tensions in India and even on why dynasties are endemic in this country, all which seems to have impressed his audiences. He even complimented Narendra Modi on his superior communication skills.

Some have said they were ‘surprised’ by his grasp of issues and his clarity? Why surprised? Because they had been led to believe, by what they had read in the media and heard on the grapevine, that he was not much more than a good-looking scion of a big political family. Gandhi had an explanation for that: his political rivals, i.e. the BJP, had a large team of people working full time to rubbish him and create an image of a non-performer. You hear me out and judge for yourself, he told his American listeners and apparently they did.

It is to be noted that Gandhi is not travelling with a media entourage. Neither are reporters from Indian television channels following him and reporting on his speeches. It is no secret that the Indian media does not give him a free ride and is often hostile to him—yet, they have not been able to go after him this time around. The BJP reaction after his meeting in Berkeley, when ministers and senior party leaders came out to attack him, seems to have not had much impact.

In Congress circles, there is much joy that their young leader is doing well in the US and is getting positive press in India. Ajay Maken got so excited that he attributed the victory of the National Students Union of India in the Delhi University Students Union election to Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Berkeley!

The Congress has some reason to be cheerful after a long time. The party had almost forgotten what good press looked like. And it comes at a time when the perception is fast gaining ground that there is growing dissatisfaction with the BJP. With the next general elections 20 months away, the BJP’s leaders cannot but be looking for ways to please the voters.

The Congress sees this as an opening for itself. The promotion of Rahul as a clever young man endorsed by global thought leaders is part of that strategy and will be deployed fully when – if? – he takes over the party in the next month or two. From then on, the Grand Old Party, will work towards improving on its performance from 2014 and even look to coming back to power, with the help of like-minded coalition partners.

Why, there could be even hopes about Rahul Gandhi emerging as the unanimous leader of this group, in the absence of any other candidate, now that Nitish Kumar has crossed over to the BJP.

This is still in the realm of wishful thinking. Forget getting the backing of the leaders of other parties – and as yet we don’t know who they will be – Rahul Gandhi first has to galvanise his own party elders. Outwardly, many partymen seem to back him, but in private they speak in different voices. Some of it is normal and happens in every party, but Gandhi will have to fight and finish this negativity if he wants to rouse his troops (and especially officers) and turn them into an election machine that can compete with the BJP. The Congress has not only lost elections, it has also lost power when it seemed to be within its grasp after winning elections.

Equally difficult will be to convince voters that the Congress has learnt from its failures and is prepared to make structural and systemic changes. UPA 2 was tainted by scams, though there is some recognition that many of its policies – that the BJP has appropriated – were largely for the good. Even those who do not like the Congress acknowledge it has a good bench strength of high-quality talent. But this may not translate into mass votes. Anti-incumbency is not always translatable into pro-opposition. Besides, Narendra Modi’s personal appeal – including his famed communication skills – is a vote-catcher like nothing else.

For the Congress, resurgence can only come if it gets not just its own communication right. Will be the party be able to join the right partners and take a back seat where required? And how will it sell Rahul Gandhi to the masses? Berkeley may have been won, but the real battle will be in Bareilly, Baroda and Balasore.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and commentator and founder editor of the www.thewire.in

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 20, 2017 16:05 IST