Newsmaker of the year: Evolution of Rahul Gandhi, from political novice to primary challenger

The evolution of Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi has perfected a hands-on style of operation, moving swiftly to resolve crises. (Photo: Pankaj Nangia/Mail Today)

Rahul Gandhi strides into the meeting room at his bungalow in Tughlaq Lane in Lutyens’ Delhi. He is wearing a Christmas-red turtle-neck sweater and a black sleeveless down jacket. He has again reverted to wearing a scraggly, greying beard. In another room, half-a-dozen Congress spokespersons wait to have an interaction with him. They are being prepped for the outcome of the day’s debate in Parliament and to engage in a slugfest with their BJP counterparts on prime time television later that evening. The aggression his partymen show reflects Rahul’s belief in giving his opponents as good as he gets. And how he is transforming the moribund Grand Old Party.

It’s been just a little over a year since Rahul took over as president of the Congress, but he has already attained the stature of a leader who has arrived. That’s because, thanks to his untiring effort, 2018 brought plenty of sunshine to dispel the gloom that had enveloped the Congress party ever since its drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when its seat strength fell to 44. Rahul has led from the front all through the year. He made 50 tours to 17 states, including eight poll-bound ones. He relentlessly attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi on four key electoral issues the agrarian crisis, the flailing economy, unemployment and the Rafale fighter jets deal. He has unleashed a social media war on the BJP, inventing new phrases such as chowkidar chor hai, which have stuck. He grabbed centre stage in a Lok Sabha debate by hugging a nonplussed prime minister in the full glare of TV cameras to show that he didn’t treat his opponents as enemies.

Now, with three creditable victories in the Hindi heartland under the Congress belt and having outmanoeuvred the BJP in forming a coalition government in Karnataka, the party is showing signs of a dramatic resurgence. It has also catapulted Rahul to new prominence as the prime challenger to Narendra Modi for the 2019 general election. The significance of the three victories can be gauged from the fact that, in 2014, the BJP won 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats spread across these states. On a personal front, he has emerged as a leader with cross-party acceptance the DMK’s Stalin sees him as the future prime minister, the NCP’s Sharad Pawar and the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury are his sounding boards, the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav and the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav are his young buddies and the TDP’s N. Chandrababu Naidu, whose politics once revolved around opposing the Congress, has now been working as the unofficial convenor of a coalition of anti-BJP parties with the Congress at its core.

Rahul was always determined to deal with his illustrious legacy on his own terms, and when he not his mother or party thought he was ready.

The victories may have enhanced Rahul’s stature enormously, but he looks upon them with humility. As he sat down for an exclusive interaction with INDIA TODAY at his house, he shied away from accepting credit for his party’s recent wins, saying, I have a problem with anyone saying that I alone did it. I’m part of a political organisation with an ideology. I have a role, but these victories should be attributed to the people of these states, the Congress workers and the infrastructure we set up. Elaborating further, he says, We were in power for 10 years, and I must say with sadness that the Congress party became arrogant. I’m trying to put into the minds of our leaders that humility is the essence of our country. You cannot represent India without being humble. With humility comes the understanding of the country and the way forward.

It is one of the many changes that Rahul is bringing about to rejuvenate the Congress and once again make it the prime force to develop the country. Rahul now exudes the energy and clarity needed to achieve the mammoth tasks he has set for the party. In December last, when Rahul ended his Hamletian dilemma and accepted the nomination as Congress president, things began inauspiciously. Two days after he took over, the results of the crucial Gujarat assembly election were announced. Despite a strong fight by the Congress, it failed to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from registering its sixth consecutive victory in the state. That loss capped a miserable year for the Congress, in which it lost three states that it had ruledHimachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur to the BJP and allowed Goa and Meghalaya to slip from its grasp. The only saving grace was a win in Punjab.

Over the previous four years, Rahul had tried desperately to pick up the pieces of the party after its devastating defeat in 2014. Although Sonia Gandhi was in charge of the party, Rahul as vice president faced as much flak. In the aftermath, state after state that the Congress-ruled succumbed to the onslaught of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah steamroller, leaving the cadre demoralised and raising grave doubts over Rahul’s ability to revive the party. Meanwhile, the Modi government unleashed a welter of cases against the Nehru-Gandhi family, targeting not just Sonia and Rahul but also his brother-in-law Robert Vadra. For Rahul, it became a fight for survival, not just of the Congress but also himself and his family. He knew that 2018 would be a year of reckoning. He had to find his political groove or he would be consigned to the dustbin of history along with his party.

How did things reach such a now-or-never point for Rahul Gandhi? His evolution as a leader began when he joined politics in 2004. Despite his illustrious lineage, politics did not come naturally to Rahul. When he joined the party as a 34-year-old, he was hesitant to take the lead, preferring to operate from behind the scenes. He was impulsive in his decisions, uncomfortable with the old guard in his party and spoke in staccato bursts that often landed him in controversy.

But even then, Rahul was determined to be a different kind of politician. He would tell his friends that the superficiality of Indian politics was driving him crazy. He did not want to become just another politician or take over the mantle by virtue of his pedigree. He wanted to rebuild the Congress from its roots but found to his dismay that the party had more leaders than cadre, and power, with all its perks and pelf, was its only glue. As he put it, My biggest challenge is that all political parties in India have a cultural problem. All politicians there are a few exceptions once they come to power, tend to think they are the owners. They are at best, as Mahatma Gandhi said, trustees.

There were many opportunities for Rahul to come to the forefront and take charge during the 10 years of the UPA government headed by the Congress. But he told his friends that he never wanted to become an alternative power centre to Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister or to his mother, Sonia. He preferred to remain a backroom leader. Only recently has he revealed that he initiated the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) when the UPA was in power and had worked towards making it a success. Also that, along with top Congress ministers and leaders, he was able to restore normalcy to Kashmir. He also confessed that he found himself in a strange place during the UPA government he would get the flak for anything it did wrong but could not attack it when it was going astray.

For Rahul, 2014 was the perfect storm. Finding out there were two Congresses within one, he worked towards giving each their dueand space

Rahul was born to a great family. And greatness was also being thrust on him. But he was determined to deal with the legacy on his own terms and when he not his party or mother thought he was truly ready. That moment would take its time coming 13 years after he took to politics. Asked why he chose to become the president of his party only last year, Rahul said, The Congress party has a particular spirit in the sense, it has deep ideas. I felt that I needed more time to understand these ideas. Now I understand them better. His opponents took his vacillation as a sign of weakness that he did not have the stuff to lead the grand old party, let alone the great Indian nation.

Family legacy: At the 84th plenary session of the Congress in March 2018 in Delhi. (Photo: Pankaj Nangia/Mail Today)

Meanwhile, India had no need to wait for him or the Congress. As the UPA government withered in its second term and Rahul exhibited his characteristic ambivalence, it allowed space for the extraordinary rise of Narendra Modi. He would fashion a narrative that would captivate a nation and take him to the pinnacle of power. From his chaiwala moorings to his emergence as the strongman of the BJP-RSS combine and the Gujarat model of development, Modi presented himself as the perfect foil to the flailing and indecisive leadership of the Congress. And pillory it for relying on namdaars (dynasts) to stay in power. In 2014, Modi swept to power, with the BJP winning a majority on its ownthe first party to do so in 25 years. The Congress was decimated and Rahul and Sonia barely hung on to their seats.

For Rahul, the 2014 defeat was the perfect storm, the absolute best thing for me, as he put it. It was a trial by firea cathartic moment. It was a time not only for introspection but also for action. Rahul embraced the challenge head on. Organisationally, he began to get the measure of the Congress. There was a deep divide between the old guard and the newcomers that Rahul had brought to the fore. There were, in effect, two Congresses within one. Instead of pushing aside the old guard, many of whom he would earlier treat with disdain, he worked hard to retain their wisdom and experience even as he injected youthful leadership into the party. Each had to be given their due and space. He would later say that it was the sandpaper of the Congress that helped him smoothen his rough edges.

One of Rahul’s strategies to rebuild the party was to create clusters of talent in each state, blending the old guard with the new

The first big challenge for Rahul after he took over as president was to constitute the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the most powerful decision-making body of the party, on July 17 this year. Rahul opted to play safe by accommodating most of the veterans and making space for the young dynasts, though the average age of 63 of the CWC members belied his promise of inducting young blood. Rumours of a cold war between Rahul and Ahmed Patel, the former political secretary of Sonia Gandhi, were similarly silenced when the Congress chief elevated Patel to the post of treasurer something reserved only for the Nehru-Gandhi family’s most trusted advisors.

Rahul’s other formula was to build clusters of talent within each state, blending the old guard with the new. So in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath was brought in to lead the party while Jyotiraditya Scindia and the younger leaders were given major roles. In Rajasthan, while he made Sachin Pilot the president of the state unit, he did not make the mistake of ignoring Ashok Gehlot, a former two-term chief minister, who had grassroots support in the state. When it came to anointing chief ministers, though, Rahul fell back on the old guard because, as a senior leader put it, There was a need to have a meeting point between the two parties within the party, but he also held out the promise of a transition. Rahul made sure the messaging was right. He posted photographs of smiling chief ministerial aspirants of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh after he brokered peace between them. The message was loud and clear of being a leader who takes everyone along, ensures consensus and doesn’t impose his decisions.

Rahul also perfected a hands-on style of operation, moving swiftly to resolve crises. In an informal conversation with party workers during the MP election campaign, state Congress stalwart Digvijaya Singh said: I don’t even go to give speeches because the Congress loses votes if I speak. The statement was caught on camera and the media projected it as a rebellion by Digvijaya. Rahul called the veteran and asked him to share the stage with him the same day at a rally in Joura near Morena. Later that night, Digvijaya flew with Rahul to Delhi, busting the impression that the Congress was a divided house. Unlike in the past, he is not averse to micro-management. He is still a keen believer in following due process, but in crisis, he is ready to bypass it. His responses are now much quicker, says a CWC member.

Another such quick decision was the deal the Congress struck with Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) immediately after the results of the Karnataka assembly election in May. Though the Congress emerged as the second largest party with 78 seats in the 224-member house, Rahul did not hesitate to offer the post of chief minister to JD-S leader HD Kumaraswamy to deny the BJP, which fell 11 seats short of a majority, the chance to form a government. Taking lessons from the experience in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya where the Congress was the single largest party, but was thwarted by the BJP’s speedy management of MLAsRahul immediately dispatched Gehlot and Ghulam Nabi Azad to Karnataka, two veterans known for their political manoeuvring to ensure that the tables were turned on the saffron party. When Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala installed a BJP government, Rahul flew in Abhishek Manu Singhvi from Chandigarh to fight a midnight legal battle in the Supreme Court, which eventually led to the resignation of the 48-hour-long BJP government in the state.

Show of hands: Opposition leaders at Kamal Nath’s oath-taking in Bhopal. (Photo: Pankaj Tiwari)

The indispensability of the likes of Patel, Nath and Gehlot also reflects Rahul’s growing acknowledgement of the importance of backroom manoeuvring in electoral politics. In 2019, the Congress will have to fight the charisma of Modi and the financial might of the BJP, says a Congress general secretary. While the Congress president will take on Modi, these veterans with huge networks have been tasked to generate resources read funds to fight elections next year. Resource mobilisation has been one of the key drivers behind Rahul’s speeches and interactions at several global universities and think tanks in the past two years. Funds from NRIs played a key role in Modi’s election campaign in 2014. These tours were an attempt to reach out to the NRIs and showcase what Rahul Gandhi stands for, and his intellectual calibre, in contrast to Modi, who sounds like a street fighter, says a young Congress leader who’d travelled with Rahul on one of these tours.

In his interaction with India Today, Rahul emphasised that among the things he was trying to do for the Congress was to make decisions based on conversations and by listening. By doing so, he said, you can be reasonably close to a fair outcome, and the mood of the organisation dramatically improves. Earlier this year, Rahul launched the Shakti mobile application, which not only allows the party to keep tabs on new enrolments in real time but also facilitates two-way communication between the Congress president and the grassroots workers. Rahul made extensive use of the inputs gathered from grassroots workers through the Shakti app as well as from the research team in finalising candidates and, in some cases, selecting party positions. For instance, in Karnataka, the decision to make Dinesh Gundu Rao president was based on the research team’s inputs on his performance in elections. The Congress campaign strategy in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh was based on the feedback of its cadre on the key issues in the states.

Rahul’s other big challenge was to shake off his partymen’s apprehensions that the Congress’s core ideology was somehow less powerful than the RSS-BJP’s Hindutva. As he told INDIA TODAY, Our central fight is against a limited number of people who believe they are India’s destiny. Mr Modi and Mr Shah believe they are India. That’s an insult to India. India is an idea that is much bigger than any individual or group. We believe that this country has to be run harmoniously and not by autocracy or dictatorship. The Congress ideology strives to make people feel that they are a central part of a great mission. It resonates within the Congress, the opposition and even elements in the BJP.

Ever since the Congress lost the 2014 election, Rahul identified the RSS as one of the biggest threats to the survival of the Congress. With its aggressive Hindutva agenda, supported by the Sangh Parivar, the BJP successfully built a narrative of the Congress as a party that favoured Muslims, to the detriment of the majority community. The Congress initially tried to hold on to the secular’ slogan but found it electorally unsustainable in a highly polarised environment. Party circles say it was a conscious decision to challenge the BJP’s monopoly over Hindutva that led to the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a janeudhari Brahmin of the Dattatreya gotra. Not to mention his temple runs in the states that went to the polls. As party insiders put it, the Congress has projected its brand of soft Hindutva as inclusive and non-violent as against the divisive and aggressive brand of Hinduism practised by the likes of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

At the same time, Rahul is aware that his primary target must be Narendra Modi, whose popularity in polls remains high despite the recent setbacks in the state assemblies. Rahul has pummelled all the achievements that the prime minister flaunts, harping on alleged corruption in the Rafale deal, farmers’ distress and the lack of jobs caused by what he calls Modi developing a God complex one fine evening at 8 pm to demonetise India’s economy and wipe out the informal economy. Unfortunately, apart from criticising Modi for failing on many fronts, Rahul has so far not come up with an alternative narrative or vision of development that might woo the voters and businessmen. Even in the three Hindi heartland states, he resorted to the promise of loan waivers to farmers to win over votes.

Rahul describes the core of his development strategy as being one of providing jobs, bolstering the economy and solving the farmers’ crisis. The supporting pieces would be a massive boost to healthcare, education, as well as infrastructure to provide connectivity, including air transport. He is unwilling to reveal how the Congress would be different from the BJP in facing such challenges while promising that whatever his party would do in these sectors would revolutionise not only India but also the world. He believes the answers should come from within by listening to the people promising governance as a partnership and not a top-down mandate.

While the three state wins have boosted Congress hopes, the margins of the victory, if extrapolated to the Lok Sabha, show it would win just 32 of the 65 seats. With the 42 seats in Karnataka, Punjab and Puducherry, the other states they are ruling, totalling just 107 seats, the only way the Congress can overthrow the BJP in 2019 is by entering into strategic alliances with other Opposition parties. Rahul says he is open to a dialogue with these political parties, the goal being to work together while respecting their individual spaces.

Defeating the BJP in 2019 will be an uphill task. And Rahul knows he has to climb many more mountains to achieve it. But in 2018, he has shown that he has the mettle to take on the might of the Modi-Shah combine. He has engineered a Congress revival and emerged as the prime challenger to Modi in the next general election. For these reasons, India Today editors decided to make Rahul Gandhi the magazine’s Newsmaker of the Year 2018.

The Making of a Leader

Rahul Gandhi’s political journey from the time he made his electoral debut in 2004

Photo: Twitter/INCIndia

2004: Joins politics and contests Lok Sabha polls from Amethi, earlier represented by father Rajiv Gandhi. Wins by over 200,000 votes (66 per cent vote share). The Congress comes to power and leads the UPA government at the Centre

2007: Appointed Congress general secretary and given charge of the Indian Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India; introduces a merit-based electoral system in the units

Star campaigner in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, but the Congress wins just 22 out of 403 seats

2008: Begins to position himself as a messiah of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. Starting with supporting Niyamgiri tribals, over the years, he spends nights in village homes in UP, takes local trains in Mumbai, meets rickshaw drivers and sanitation workers in Delhi, queues up at a bank to exchange currency post demonetisation, flies budget airlines.

2009: Addresses 125 rallies during the Lok Sabha campaign; the Congress wins 21 of the 80 seats in UP, the UPA returns to power

2011: Joins farmers protesting against the UP government’s forcible acquisition of their land at low rates in Bhatta Parsaul village, gets arrested. Later, the UPA government passes the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act

2013: Appointed Congress vice-president, says power is poison

Making a surprise appearance at a press briefing by party general secretary Ajay Maken, describes as complete nonsense his own government’s proposed ordinance giving convicted politicians reprieve from disqualification. Forces the government to withdraw the ordinance

2014: UPA loses power, the Congress sinks to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha;

Rahul retains Amethi, with a reduced margin.

2015: Goes to an undisclosed location abroad to practise vipassana for nearly two months

Attacks the Modi government, calling it a suit-boot sarkar’; forces the government to abandon proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2011

Rahul and Sonia Gandhi make a court appearance in the case of alleged misappropriation of funds linked to the National Herald newspaper; court grants bail to all the accused

2017: Takes charge of his Twitter handle, firing salvos laced with wit and sarcasm at the NDA government; immediately finds good traction on social media.

Gives an inspiring speech at the University of California, Berkeley, where he reflects on contemporary India and the path forward; it’s followed by another interaction at Princeton University, signalling his arrival as Modi’s prime challenger. Readies his line of attack against the government, focused on unemployment, agricultural distress and the economic slowdown

Elected unopposed as Congress president. Under him, the Congress gives the BJP a tough fight in the Gujarat assembly election, restricting its tally to double digits in a two-cornered contest

2018: The Congress outsmarts the BJP the single largest party in the Karnataka assembly election to form a coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular); Rahul offers CM’s post to alliance partner

Leads party to victory in three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh; the Congress loses badly in Telangana and Mizoram.

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