Reinvention is the stepmother of necessity with both the markets and the masses. To keep its loyal customer base and attract new ones, automobile giants such as Mercedes Benz keep tinkering with the interiors and exteriors of all its models almost every year. Similarly, the Congress party’s only visible and marketable model Rahul Gandhi has been given a new revamp. His external looks haven't changed much though his hairline has grown thinner.
However, there is a fresh spring in his step and a savvy spin in his voice. Rahul’s new spin-doctors are projecting him as a leader who is no longer a subject of ridicule. They insist that he has acquired political maturity, argumentative sagacity and credible connectivity with his political constituency. Only time will tell whether he is a better political leader now than he was a couple of months ago, but he is definitely drawing more responsive crowds and visibly optimistic endorsements from sections, which were once opposed to him personally and his party politically.
Even on social media platforms, the Congress and its leaders are grabbing better eyeballs and responses, in spite of the bots on Twitter revelations. This newfound enthusiasm for RaGa was evident at the Annual Meeting of the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry held in New Delhi last week. The business lobby forum comprised small and medium level industrialists who have been vocal and enthusiastic supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP for decades.
This time around, when Rahul opened his 35-minute written speech with a scathing attack on Modi, he was greeted with unexpectedly loud clapping from the audience, which seemed to be enjoying every bitter barb and acidic pun. Deviating from the normal convention of not coming out openly in support of any political party, most of the assembled tycoons lauded Rahul for his “vision for growth”. He took full advantage of his supportive audience, cracking one acerbic one-liner after the other against the BJP government. He cloned the Modi model of alphabetic assault. He basted the current economic slowdown as a MMD (Modi Made Disaster).
He mocked Modi's innovative programmes by saying ‘Start Up India can’t go hand-in-hand with ‘Shut Up India’. He captivated the crowd by attacking Demonetisation, asserting that 'all cash is not black and all black is not cash.' He concluded his presentation declaring that the PM has "unleashed his powers from his very big chest and a very small heart.” In the new battle for hearts and minds, Rahul has settled on sarcasm as a delivery mechanism.
It is obvious that the Congress has at last forced its rhetorically reluctant leader to be more focused in his assertions with wit and verve than simply spouting embarrassing inanities and launching unimpressive attacks on the Prime Minister. It has hired new media advisors, creative word warriors and slogan smiths to invent a new oratorical architecture for Rahul to match the BJP and Modi, word for word and slogan for slogan. For example, Modi had labelled GST a ‘Good and Simple Tax.’ A few months later, after the Congress assessed the visible anger against its atrocious implementation, Rahul spoofed it as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’—a jeering take on extortion by its namesake bandit leader in the immortal blockbuster, Sholay.
However, there is some bad in the badinage. The remodelling of Rahul Gandhi seems based on the negative agenda of attacking the Prime Minister rather than offering an alternative model of governance to what Modi had given Gujarat as the CM till 2014, and India as the PM now. Here again, Rahul appears to be duplicating Modi’s campaign style. His persiflage towards Modi is directed at the government’s moves on the economy, Kashmir and diplomacy. In the manner Modi had delivered a fatal political blow to the Congress in 2014 by effectively and convincingly raising the issues of corruption, crony capitalism, policy paralysis, minority appeasement and centralisation of power at 10 Janpath, Rahul is now taking up the same issues, using almost the same vocabulary.
He is convinced the language of confrontation will deliver political dividends as it has for Modi. His act is to keep Modi and his team on the defensive by hitting out at crony capitalism, irresponsive and arrogant governance, concentration of power in the PMO, growing intolerance in academics, cinema and politics, discrimination against minorities, demoralising, undermining and demeaning institutions like judiciary, CVC, CBI etc.
Undisciplined and irrational acts like targeting ‘Mersal’, Rajasthan’s government Ordinance banning media coverage and prosecution of public servants for corruption and savage attacks on foreign tourists and Muslims in parts of the country have put the BJP leadership on the mat. While Modi is reaching out to the minorities, opening a dialogue in Kashmir and releasing an economic revival package, a handful of his self-styled supporters and rogue promoters are providing ammunition to his rivals.
Meanwhile, like Superman out of the phone booth, Rahul’s new avatar has taken the fight to Gujarat, Modi’s own turf. Now he is trying to be the rallying point for all anti-Modi forces and communities, which are feeling neglected. He is forging new alliances using the old, time-tested formula KHAM—Kshatriya, Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi (tribal) and Muslim—to either replace the two-decade-old BJP government or at least make a dent in its legislative strength. Buoyed by recent electoral gains in Panchayat and municipal elections in some states, he is aiming for victory in the battle of Gujarat in 2017 to win the war of 2019. Coming Monday will be his fifth visit to the state in the past six months.
He has stitched together a powerful caste configuration of Patidars, Dalits, Thakurs and OBCs by roping in young leaders such as Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakore. He has also adopted soft Hindutva by making frequent visits to temples and places holy to Hindus. In 2012, the face-off was between Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Now it is between Modi and the young Gandhi. However, RaGa would need more than just verbal slingshots and a cosmetic makeover to trounce a Goliath like Modi, since he is yet to acquire the true characteristics of David whose unflinching faith in his mission won the fight.
Follow him on Twitter@PrabhuChawla