Rahul Gandhi’s coming of age in 2017 sparks hopes of a Congress revival

The year 2017 may well be called a watershed moment in Rahul Gandhi’s patchy political career. It is not just because he was finally elevated to the top-most post of the 132-year-old party, but because he came to be seen as a leader who has the capacity to appeal to the masses and the ability to capture the imagination of people, shedding the tag of an elitist and “cameo activist”. The image the Rahul Gandhi of 2017 wants to build and project is not of “an angry outsider” but that of an “evolved politician”.

If one is asked the defining moments of the 47-year-old’s political career, one would recall the incident four years ago where he tore an ordinance the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government was bringing to negate a Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs; or the Bhatta-Parsaul farmers agitation that he successfully led against the Mayawati-led BSP government in Uttar Pradesh. Gandhi has remained in people’s imagination but he lacked consistency which has been his biggest bugbear – not to forget his habit of simply vanishing from the political sphere, like the 57-day sabbatical in 2015.

But in 2017, the Gandhi scion has occupied the political space like no other politician (if we leave Prime Minister Narendra Modi ofcourse). From shedding his reticence and interacting with students at the University of Berkeley to his one-man show during the Gujarat assembly election campaign, Gandhi left no stone unturned in coming out of his mother Sonia Gandhi’s shadows. If “suit-boot ki sarkar” was the reverberating theme in 2015 in reference to the PM’s monogrammed suit, the new jingle for 2017 was “Gabbar Singh Tax”.

Here is a look at the top five moments of Rahul Gandhi in 2017:

1) Speech at University of Berkeley: One of the striking features of Gandhi’s interaction with students at Berkeley was his frank admission that a “certain amount of arrogance” had crept into the Congress midway through UPA II, and it had stopped having “conversations with people.” He said that the vision of the UPA government formed in 2004 had a ‘sell-by date’ of 10 years.

During a question-answer session after his lecture on ‘India At 70: Reflections On The Path Forward’, Gandhi said most political parties had a “dynastic problem” in India. “Most parties in India have that problem (dynastic politics). So, don’t give us the stick… Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast. Stalin is a dynast. (Prem Kumar) Dhumal’s son is a dynast… Even Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast. That is how India runs…don’t get after me because that is how the entire country is running. By the way, last I recall, Ambani’s kids were running their business and that was also going on in Infosys. That is what happens in India.”

2) Social media makeover: Not too long ago, the Grand Old Party was a social media laggard and so was Rahul. Today, though Gandhi is still nowhere near Prime Minister Narendra Modi in social media presence (Modi has 37.3 million followers, while Rahul has just touched 4.6 million), he has managed to make people take notice of what is being posted at @OfficeofRG. Soon, BJP realised that Rahul’s tweets “bite” too as the Congress leader introduced his followers to his dog, tweeting a video of the pet doing tricks, along with the comment: “Ppl have been asking who tweets for this guy..It’s me..Pidi. I am way (cooler) than him. Look what I can do with a tweet..oops..treat!”

The party knew they had got something right as witty criticisms and sarcastic one-liners followed countering each of the Modi government’s flawed decisions. Congress leaders point to how Rahul is talking more about himself, his faith, his interests — he recently revealed he has a black belt in Aikido, a Japanese martial art; and that he exercises, runs and swims for an hour every day.

3) Gabbar Singh Tax and attack on demonetisation: Ramesh Sippy’s iconic villain Gabbar Singh returned in the form of GST as Rahul Gandhi flayed the Centre over its ‘flawed and hasty implementation’ of the tax regime. “Their GST is not GST. GST means Gabbar Singh Tax. This is causing a loss to the country. Small shopkeepers are finished. Lakhs of youths have been unemployed. But they are still not ready to listen,” he said in October just before the campaign for Gujarat elections. The analogy stuck in the minds of the people and to some extent played a pivotal role in the government bringing down the GST rates of 200 items and pruning the top tax slab of 28 per cent to just 50 items.

Gandhi also slammed PM Modi’s demonetisation decision and linked it to the farmers issues, pointing to how the move was a pincer attack on them at a time of agrarian distress. “Modi orderednotebandi. Country suffered huge loses. Farmers buy seeds by paying in cash. When you buy seeds, do you pay by mobile or phone? Do you pay through cheque or credit card? Don’t know what happened, but Modi launched a severe attack on the economy of the country without consulting anybody,” he had said.

4) One-man show in Gujarat and temple visits: Rahul Gandhi’s high-spirited election campaign forced the BJP to bring out its big guns and already the vibes could be felt that the ground had started slipping for BJP in its fortress for 22 years. Modi, who was the state’s CM for 12 years, was not only forced to address as many as 34 election rallies in his home state, but rely on poll optics like arriving on a seaplane to grab headlines.

Significantly, Gandhi visited at least 25 temples, thus providing a counter to BJP’s exclusive claim on Hindutva. He got the message across that that he is a “devotee of Lord Shiva” and, unlike his predecessors in the Congress, he would not hesitate to display it in public even at the risk of being labelled as an election gimmick. This strategy went a long way in influencing the traditional Hindu voters of Gujarat. Moreover, Gandhi avoided mentioning Muslims specifically during his election campaigns, which helped in dispelling the popular notion that the Congress works for the “appeasement of Muslims”.