After the results in the three Hindi heartland states has Rahul Gandhi’s image changed?
It was an excited Pertie who rang early on Wednesday morning. “You can’t call him Pappu any longer!”, he bellowed down the line. “With these elections he’s found his political feet and come into his own.” I’ve rarely known Pertie to be so forceful about a political issue. Normally he’s uninterested.
However, Pertie’s pithy conclusion set me thinking. Was he right? After the results in the three Hindi heartland states has Rahul Gandhi’s image changed? Has he established his political credibility with these successes? My brief answer is yes but let me explain.
Even though Congress was battered in Mizoram and embarrassed in Telangana, much of the credit for its revival in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan goes to Rahul Gandhi. Of course, he has to share it with others, like Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh or Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan or Bhupesh Baghel and T. S. Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh, but you can’t deny the importance, if not centrality, of his own role. If Congress had lost he would have been blamed. Now it’s only fair the credit should also be his.
Three things stand out about Rahul Gandhi’s campaign. First, is his diligence. Since October he addressed 82 rallies in the five states holding elections. In contrast, Narendra Modi only held 31. He also held roadshows in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and public meetings in Mizoram. With these the earlier image of the amateur or dilettante, a part-time politician who was only visible when the sun was shining, has been nailed for good.
The second defining point of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign was the severity of his attack on the prime minister and the BJP-led central government. Calling the chowkidar a chor was just the rhetoric and even if some found it distasteful you can’t deny it stood out. But what struck a deeper chord was Rahul Gandhi’s stress on demonetisation and GST, unemployment, rural distress and even, possibly, Rafale. These subjects found a ready and responsive audience.
It’s the third element of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign that suggests it would be facile to consider the outcome anti-BJP and not pro-Congress. His promise of wide-ranging farm loan waivers and, in Chhattisgarh, significant increases in MSPs would undoubtedly have encouraged millions of farmers to consciously vote for Congress. He was offering what they were seeking. To say this must have positively attracted their vote is, perhaps, to state the obvious. More than what they want, people vote for what they need.
However, what can we say about Rahul Gandhi’s soft Hindutva temple visits? Did they redress lingering concerns that Congress was pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu? Did they diminish the hesitation many may have felt in voting Congress? Even if one cannot say for sure, these visits certainly did no harm to Congress prospects. Nor, it seems, did they put off minority voters. The soft Hindutva strategy is, therefore, here to stay.
Yet something else is also true. The BJP’s and the Sangh Parivar’s stress on immediately building the Ram Mandir clearly did not yield political dividends. It did not propel the Hindi heartland electorate to vote for the BJP. The truth is that a majority of Hindus would welcome a Ram Mandir but in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan they did not vote with this at the front of their mind. They were motivated by other material issues.
So, yes, Pertie is spot on. It’s time to say ‘bye-bye Pappu and hello Rahul Gandhi’.
The views expressed are personal