Modi's quest for innovation: Countering Rahul's rising influence

He bows humbly to MPs, who thank him for the favour. When Om Birla bows, Modi accepts the tribute like Dronacharya blessing Arjuna.
Leader of Opposition Rahul Gandhi, (R), Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Leader of Opposition Rahul Gandhi, (R), Prime Minister Narendra ModiPhoto | PTI

If Narendra Modi is the master of nuances, Rahul Gandhi is the boy of buoyancy. From 2014 to 2024, as the Supreme Leader of India, Modi’s political alchemy turned action into symbolism. In a decade, his image evolved into the Golden G.O.A.T; elected monarch, BJP’s Biggest Boss, messiah of the masses, Yohanan of youth, darling of the world and obliterator of the Opposition.

His language didn’t change, but his body language did from prime minister to pope of democracy. He walks with measured steps, signalling the gravitas of power. He bows humbly to MPs, who thank him for the favour. When Om Birla bows, Modi accepts the tribute like Dronacharya blessing Arjuna.

Rahul has reinvented himself as a casual cat. His grandfather was a sartorial delight: the only Indian besides Gandhi to have an item of clothing named after him—the Gandhi cap and the Nehru jacket. Indira Gandhi was the epitome of swadeshi chic, a textile diva who wore carefully chosen handloom saris. She made the sari a global style statement.

A woman of small stature, she walked and spoke clearly; Hindi, English or French. Like Nehru, she knew the difference of distinction. The sari alone wasn’t enough, like the jacket wasn’t for Nehru; the rose in his buttonhole was the final flourish while the pallu over her head at public meetings showed she had both common sense and fashion sense: a unique ballot combo. Her homage to Hinduism was the rudraksh mala around her neck.

Sonia has borrowed her beloved mother-in-law’s wardrobe wisdom; she, too, knows sari power in India. Unlike Indira, she smiles less, though. But is Rahul on a sartorial sabbatical? The white T-shirt-and-chinos look he adopted during his yatras has been taken to the Lok Sabha: ‘casual is cool’ as opposed to Modi’s ‘style is sass’. At Harvard, the cut of his bandhgalas is as impeccable as George Clooney’s tux at the Oscars.

Change is in the heir. In 2019, during Modi’s second swearing-in, according to insider scuttlebutt, Rahul didn’t want to attend the jubilant coronation of his nemesis. Cameras showed him beside his mother, gloomy, unshaven and petulant: he had just lost Amethi. Soon, old buddies vamoosed for new pastures. Rahul was the scapegoat, and his family was the funeral.

From the lodestone, he became the millstone around his party’s neck. At some point, he pulled himself up by his sneakers and discarded Congress khadi for the young-man-on-the-street fashion style. Even if he was mocked, he hugged and winked. He joked at jeers. He has a weak unimpressive voice; but his words, right or wrong, spoke louder than his voice in Parliament.

The biggest rejection of hoary Hindutva was the Ayodhya debacle. The BJP needs new ideas pronto. Being delusional on Manipur and optimistic about Maharashtra won’t help. The tired trope of dynasty rule, pre-2014 corruption, the Emergency, economic chest-thumping, global King Kong hype, surgical strike salvos and Pakistan bashing won’t keep voters on steroids. The RSS is no longer a pliant pansy.

FIR mania about ‘Insult to Hindus’ charge indicates the lunatic fringe needs Prozac. Modi’s achievements can’t be dismissed, but he needs a new language minus the old body language. In the whispering underbelly of Saffron World, he is already the scapegoat for not getting even a simple majority. Betrayal is the OTP for new transactions in power politics. If anyone can raise the BJP up again, it is Modi. Innovative ideas, not old oratory, is his best bet.

Ravi Shankar

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