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Can late bloomer Rahul Gandhi script a turnaround in Congress fortunes?

The ongoing campaign in Gujarat is Rahul Gandhi’s chance to prove skeptics wrong by winning or at least improving the party’s tally.

opinion Updated: Dec 05, 2017 08:17 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Rahul Gandhi,Congress chief,Congress vice-president
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, accompanied by former prime minister Manmohan Singh (R), files his nomination papers for the post of party president, at the AICC office in New Delhi on Monday. (PTI)

The long-delayed, much-speculated change of guard in the Congress is finally a reality.

Rahul Gandhi is president now of the party founded in 1885 – and facing its worst political test since Independence.

In many ways it’s a transition from de facto to de jure. The sixth generation Gandhi-Nehru scion has called the shots since his elevation as vice-president in the beginning of 2013 without picking up the testamur that makes a leader: a poll victory!

The ongoing campaign in Gujarat is his chance to prove skeptics wrong by winning or at least improving the party’s tally.

For the victory in Punjab, where he campaigned, was attributed to the charismatic Amarinder Singh. The sole silver line amid the run of defeats were the 20-odd seats the Congress won in UP in the 2009 general elections.

In fact, the party’s return to power then was popular acceptance of Sonia Gandhi’s inclusive persona, Manmohan Singh’s economic prowess and Rahul’s youthful appeal. Theirs was a reassuring blend for city dwellers and rural folks alike in the backdrop of the 2008 US subprime economic crisis that had global ripples.

That’s the past the Congress’s striving to revive in post-GST and demonetisation Gujarat where its challenger is the same Narendra Modi who took it to the cleaners in 2014. It’s from that rump of 44 Lok Sabha seats the new president has to rebuild the Congress.

Does he have it in him? Can he help the party regain the enviable past that’s in a shambles? There’s a tenuous body of evidence now that he’s no longer the fumbling, bumbling Rahul who came across as the Congress family’s reluctant, reticent ‘karta.’

Not till long ago, a widely shared impression in the party was that unlike his mother, he wasn’t a consensus builder. That he was a chronic absentee prone to deserting the post amid battles he should’ve led from the front.

But the leader some of his colleagues are seeing in Gujarat is ‘another’ person: willing to listen and accept advice; take party-persons across age-groups along rather than restricting himself to a cabal of chosen aides.

A Gujarat PCC office holder said it was unusual for him to hear Rahul asking for seniors on seeing them missing from his entourage.

He dwelt as much on his self-correcting ways at a public rally, admitting that the hammering he got from the BJP was for him a lesson.

“I’m a changed person,” the Gujarat leader quoted him as telling the crowd.

The pragmatist in him was evident as much at the Dwarkadheesh Temple.

He was all attention as priests showed him records of earlier visits by his family elders: Pandit Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. He wore through the day’s campaign the vermillion tilak they applied, till he reached another temple at dusk.

But the question remains: has Rahul changed or people are looking at him differently? Is he, as Mani Shankar Aiyar often says, blooming late the way Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia did?

The jury is out and watching. Credit nevertheless goes to him for assuming command in the middle of a poll battle that can go either way.

First Published: Dec 04, 2017 23:01 IST