New Delhi: And so, finally, to the last candidate of the “2019” series on potential prime ministers of this year, Rahul Gandhi, who is the polar opposite of Narendra Modi, the candidate preceding him, in being humble and decent, and has rather surprised the country with his political chops. Pulling off a dramatic victory for the Congress party he heads in frontal contests with the Bharatiya Janata Party in three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi has done more than any other national-level politician to make Narendra Modi’s re-election bid tougher, and likely even impossible. What’s behind the Gandhi scion’s robust transformation, and could it carry him to the corner room of South Block?

If at all Rahul Gandhi’s transformation can be dated, it begins arguably with his speeches in University of California, Berkeley; Princeton University; and at a NRI gathering in Times Square, New York, in September 2017. He spoke on themes which are now familiar to the Indian electorate, touching on the economic downturn, jobless growth, the rising intolerance and lack of inclusivity in the Modi regime, and on foreign policy. Taking questions on dynastic politics at Berkeley, he displayed such candour as is usually missing in Indian politicians, saying, “Most parties in India have that problem (dynastic politics). So don’t give us the stick... Akhilesh Yadav 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...”

The BJP got after him for the dynastic comment (although it promotes dynasts as well) and even attacked Rahul Gandhi for speaking against the Modi government on foreign shores conveniently forgetting Modi’s own overseas diatribes against the Nehru-Gandhis and the previous UPA administration. Surprisingly this time, the Modi regime and its cheerleaders found their attacks directed at Rahul Gandhi resonating less with the public. There are conceivably two reasons for this. After years of misses and “Pappu” name-calling, Rahul Gandhi had become a hit speaker at Berkeley, fielding fierce questions with disarming answers. Rahul has since grown adept at managing aggressive press conferences while Narendra Modi has gone into hiding from the media except where curated interviews are possible. The second likely factor for the positive reception of Rahul’s Berkeley/ Princeton/ New York outings is to be found in the disasters of demonetization and ill-conceived GST which followed one another in a space of months (November 2016 and July 2017) to lop off at least 1.5 per cent of the GDP and hurtle the MSME sector to ruin. Pushing the collapsing economy into sharp relief were the vigilante horror of so-called “gau rakshak” groups emboldened by Modi’s strategic silence and the uneven handling of the Doklam crisis of June that year.

If Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party expected Rahul Gandhi to burn out after Berkeley, the opposite has happened. After five years as party vice-president and perhaps having won the confidence of his mother, Sonia, he took her place at the head of the Indian National Congress months after Berkeley. One year later, he had vindicated that confidence by winning the three coveted heartland states against tremendous odds. It is a fact that anti-incumbency was snapping at the heels of the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh BJP governments, but the BJP power dynamics is different from the standard of other parties, and makes the Congress victories sweeter. When the BJP comes to power anywhere, the RSS also gets a share of the pie, which is used to entrench its interests. Dislodging entrenched interests of thirteen to fifteen years as in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is no easy task, and the Congress under Rahul Gandhi undeniably pulled off a feat.

Along the way, he has changed, and the most marked transformation is in his personal religious philosophy which has attracted a sizeable army of detractors from the secular orthodoxy. A self-professed devotee of Lord Shiva, Rahul Gandhi visits temples to the chagrin of the BJP/ RSS, undertakes pilgrimages (the last to Kailash Mansarovar), and is unabashed about his Hindu ancestry, donning the sacred thread and conducting himself as a Kashmiri Brahmin. Congress supporters and secular detractors say the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru is tarnishing the modernistic and secular legacy of India’s greatest prime minister. But Rahul Gandhi has a rather simple rebuttal for this which is at the same time complex and even sophisticated. It fits in with his centrist position on economic ideologies. Perhaps, it is right to say that he has no desire to become a prisoner of ideology and trusts to individualism and individual choices. On his religious beliefs, he says it is a personal choice. The hypocrisy of Indian politicians would not allow them to reveal their religious side in public unless they belong to the BJP or to minority sects. Rahul Gandhi appears not to care for such concealment. At the same time, he is harder on the BJP, RSS and intolerance than any other Central leader. He likely seeks to reclaim Hinduism from its self-appointed BJP/ RSS/ VHP custodians and that is brave even if it puts him in a clash with sections of his own party and the larger secular establishment. Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi’s personal religious philosophy is not very different from his mixed views on small, medium and big businesses although he takes a hard line on crony capitalism especially as represented by Anil Ambani and the Rafale scandal.

To be continued...

Please also read “2019,” “2019-2, “2019-3, “2019-4,” “2019-5,” “2019-6,” “2019-7” and “2019-8”.