Once mocked mercilessly for his articulation and dismissed contemptuously as incapable of spearheading the charge against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has suddenly started to be taken seriously. This has inspired commentaries seeking to explain Gandhi’s metamorphosis. Most of these explanations have a common refrain — Rahul has changed the narrative around him with his intelligent, combative, often humourous, tweets.
No doubt, his social media outreach has become smarter and is garnished with levity. But this is not a cause behind Rahul’s makeover. In fact, his tweets are lapped up today because these echo the sentiments of a growing number of people.
In other words, it is not Rahul who has changed. What has changed is the socio-political context in which he operates. This, in turn, has altered the people’s perception of India’s problems and their possible solutions. It has aligned them with Rahul’s prescriptions on a variety of matters, particularly economy.
In keeping with the Congress tradition, Rahul’s rhetoric over the last three years can be placed between Centre and Left of Centre of India’s ideological spectrum. He has spoken of the agrarian distress, dubbed the Modi government pro-rich, best symbolised through his phrase, suit-boot ki sarkar, which he coined in 2015. He has lauded the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which the Manmohan Singh government passed in 2005, to stake his own ideological position. He has batted for the right to freedom of expression and highlighted the threat Hindutva poses to the idea of inclusive nationalism.
But his political positioning did not win him respect or support until September, which was when Rahul addressed students in select American universities. He spoke of demonetisation and GST inflicting pain on people and aggravating the economic slowdown India had been already experiencing. This was, in many ways, standard Opposition fare, albeit delivered with clarity and acuity.
This is where the socio-economic context came into play.
At the time Rahul was delivering speeches in American universities, the media had already furnished statistics to show that India’s GDP growth had dipped to 5.7 percent and that of industry to 1.2 percent. The slowdown was ascribed to both demonetisation and GST. A slew of economists presented a grim economic outlook for the future, undercutting the government’s claims to the contrary.
His attack on Modi wasn’t therefore perceived to be typical of Opposition leaders whose function it is to criticise the government. Nor was Rahul lambasting Modi for his past failings. He was perceived to be speaking “truth to power.” This was because the statistics on the economy said so, because the hardship wrought by demonetisation and GST was (and still is) the lived experience of the people.
There suddenly emerged an audience skeptical of the government’s spin of an economic turnaround. Rahul’s criticism was no longer an Opposition leader’s routine act. He was deemed to be speaking the truth, another measure of which was the BJP’s hyper reaction to his speeches in the American universities. Union Minister Smriti Irani threw venomous barbs at him at a press conference and another 10 Union ministers were counted to have tweeted with unbecoming hostility against him.
Thus, Rahul’s description of GST as Gabbar Singh Tax generates response because it is rooted in reality, as has his coinage — MMD or Modi-made Disaster — to explain why real wages have been stagnant for three years and bank lending the lowest in 60 years. In other words, Rahul’s rhetoric has begun to mirror the real world; it reflects the lived reality of millions. His criticism has become meaningful because of the context that has emerged over the last few months.
It is only natural for all those suffering on account of the economic slowdown to take seriously a leader voicing their concerns. They have become invested in him because they feel it is vital to have an alternative emerge – it is the only way to restrain an overconfident BJP leadership, having an abiding faith in its certitude, bumbling from one adventurism to another.
As the leader of India’s grand old party, Rahul enjoys the advantage in becoming that possible alternative. It is also because he no longer faces competition from other Opposition leaders, all of whom opted out of the race either because of circumstances or they simply miscalculated.
For much of last two years, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal had been the most vocal opponent of Modi. But after failing to win Punjab for his party and then vanquished in the municipality elections, Kejriwal has refrained from attacking Modi directly. He presumably believes his electoral losses were because he was out of sync with the national mood overwhelmingly in favour of the prime minister. Then again, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar was touted as the possible Opposition face, but unable to win the support of others for his ambition, he simply jumped ship.
This isn’t to say that Rahul hasn’t tried to reposition himself. Perhaps the most palpable sign of it is Rahul’s high-profile visits to temples in Gujarat. He is consciously emphasising his Hindu identity. This, the Congress felt, was needed for dispelling the impression that it favours the religious minorities and is indifferent to both Hindu interests and Hinduism.
Rahul’s projection of his Hindu identity did not begin with Gujarat this year. For instance, in April 2015, nearly a year after the humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi undertook a 16-km trek to the Kedarnath shrine. It went largely unnoticed and uncommented upon, unlike his visits to temples in Gujarat. A clutch of BJP leaders, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and Madhya Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, accused Gandhi of being hypocritical and indulging in a sham.
They haven’t ignored Gandhi’s temple visits, as they largely did his trek to Kedarnath, because the political context has changed from 2015 to 2017. Since the people have started to look at Gandhi differently, the BJP senses they might no longer consider him a deracinated Hindu oblivious of his religious traditions. It has evidently made the BJP nervous that its monopoly over the religious realm could break; its claim of being the sole custodian of Hinduism could stand challenged.
Regardless of whether the Congress wins or loses in Gujarat, Rahul will be taken seriously from now on. This is because in the changed political context, people realising the necessity of seeing an effective counterpoise to the government undoubtedly adrift in Rahul . It will be quite another story if Rahul can capture Gujarat.