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Life after Berkeley: Rahul Gandhi looks ready for a bigger battle

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has to understand that the people of India are patient and generous. They are still ready, waiting and willing to be surprised by him.

analysis Updated: Oct 03, 2017 18:42 IST
Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv Visvanathan
Rahul Gandhi,Berkeley,Congress
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi making a speech at UC Berkeley, California.The Congress as a party needs more than one miracle but small beginnings could make sense. (PTI file)

Sometimes a small positive picture is worth a thousand critical words. I was looking at a photograph of Rahul Gandhi speaking the University of California, Berkeley. He looks quiet, composed, easy, autonomous. He looks sensible and spoke sense. The pictures are in stark contrast to the many shot in India where Rahul Gandhi looks distracted. The latter photographs lack presence but the picture at Berkeley conveys a presence. The contrast is stark and sets one wondering.

Maybe he needed a change in context, a chance to be himself. The audience felt more open and he was more candid developing a different narrative of the NRI, distinct from the Silicon Valley pomposity. Getting his historical analogues right, he said the Congress itself was an achievement of an older generation of NRIs. In that sense many of the great figures in the Congress, went out, got a foreign degree before they returned to join the nationalist struggle. The roll call includes Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar.

It was a small nugget of insight but a substantial one. He adds in a self-deprecatory style that Narendra Modi was a successful communicator, more successful than he was. The photograph where he stands with Sam Pitroda, and other American politicos again conveys a man who has got his message across, content with his argument. The inanity and mediocrity projected on him has disappeared. He looks ready for a bigger struggle and easy about it. Of course one might be reading too much into a small event, but there is a sense of a difference, a nuance that one feels is critical.

One senses a footnote of success and the best certification of Rahul Gandhi’s success is the hysteria that accompanies it in Panchjanya and The Organiser, which dismissed Berkeley as the American JNU. A magazine that was dismissive of Rahul Gandhi, condemning him as a dynast now suddenly senses that this dynast, matter of fact about his dynasty could be formidable. Sometimes hysteria is the best compliment an opponent can pay to a rival.

There is another set of points one needs to make. One is not asking for performative miracles but every instance in which Rahul Gandhi sounds coherent, competent and convincing is a sign of hope. I am not saying that such performative acts are enough. The Congress as a party needs more than one miracle but small beginnings could make sense. Rahul Gandhi is conveying an admission of past mistakes. Maybe he is rethinking away from the bumblings of Digvijay Singh. Maybe he has discovered that wandering to new contexts, thinking on your own, outside the iron cage of the old Congress, might refresh his thoughts and strategies.

If Rahul Gandhi capitalises on some of the mistakes made by the NDA government, his learning curve changes. That is all one needs for now. A man who is quietly competent, conveying a quiet presence, waiting for a chance, letting the BJP tie itself into knots. A sense of hope. A message that people are still waiting for an Opposition to rise to the occasion. A small plateau of possibilities but politics often begins in these small nuances. One hopes for a new team, a different approach to ideas, a renewed sense of the vibrancy of Opposition not the knee-jerk comments of a fatalistic Opposition. Let us hope Rahul sustains it. Sometimes a footnote is the beginning of a new history. Gandhi has to understand this, that there is patience and generosity to Indian people. They are still ready, waiting and willing to be surprised by him. The Congress is still a political habit that many Indians do not want to abandon.

Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 03, 2017 16:38 IST