Perhaps it is an open secret that Rahul Gandhi is a much-reviled politician in the country. In 2018, Amit Shah referred to him as ‘Pappu’, to demean him. Not to be outsmarted by such a caustic jibe, Rahul Gandhi has referred to himself thus on a few occasions, to drive home the point that he is a polite and civilised face in politics, unlike the ruling party. Even the media loves to take the mickey out of him on the slightest provocation. On social media, he is often reduced to a laughing stock and dynasty is the stick to beat him with.
Infantilised and excoriated by his political detractors in equal measure, he is made to appear like an ignoramus out to write the obituary of his party. During any media debate these days on TV channels, whenever a cornered BJP spokesperson runs out of arguments against his Congress counterpart, he or she whips out the only arrow available in the quiver – Rahul Gandhi – with which to silence them. Rahul Gandhi’s name is deliberately dragged into any debate to deflect the opposition’s fire. The ruling party’s spokesperson then takes the moral high ground saying that Congress should not be lecturing the ruling party on its failures as long as the latter has a liability called Rahul Gandhi, a lost ball in high weeds.
Knives out since Amethi loss
After Rahul Gandhi lost the election in 2019 from Amethi, his home constituency, from where he has been winning since 2004, the knives have been out for him. While the BJP lost no opportunity to take potshots at him, at the same time, it felt happy because it could use him as a punching bag whenever its needed to step up attack on the Congress. And, much as it might deny, the BJP would never be comfortable with the idea of a non-Nehru Gandhi as Congress president.
Recently, Ramachandra Guha wrote, “If a non-Nehru-Gandhi as Congress president asked the government tough questions about its mishandling of the economy and of the pandemic, or about its suppression of dissent and its capitulation to the Chinese, it would be harder for the ruling regime to speak about Nehru or Indira or Rajiv in reply.”
Rahul Gandhi is often criticised for hastening the downslide of the party because of his inept leadership. To many, he is like one of those gods of Epicurus, who see the deplorable state of affairs from their empyrean heights but feel helpless to make any difference. However, such insinuations notwithstanding, Rahul has remained a fierce, uncompromising critic of Modi government’s economic policies like the demonetisation fiasco in 2016 and the hastily applied GST.
He has also been vocal about the gross mishandling of the second wave in April-May and the vaccine shortage in the country, blaming Modi directly for making a cock-up of it. Similarly, he has come down on the government like a ton of bricks on the lack of transparency in the Rafael deal and, most recently, the infamous Pegasus episode. Simply put, he has led from the front and not been missing in action. He keeps making the right noises at the right time.
The problem is, Rahul Gandhi mostly gets bad press no matter how relevant and genuine his stance on political issues of the day may be. Most of the right-wing media houses tend to play down the seriousness of his intent, as if he is somebody whose fulminations and reactions really don’t matter in the scheme of things. However, that should not bother him and his party.
The fact is, Rahul is here to stay as he is tied to the umbilical cord of Congress and its ideology. Commenting on the decision of two young leaders from the grand old party to join the BJP, Rahul has said that those with RSS affiliations are free to leave the Congress. His message is clear: Only those who have a commitment towards the party should remain in the Congress.
Work is cut out
Rahul now has his work cut out. In order to prove his indispensability, he needs to recalibrate the party’s political strategy so that it can have a fighting chance in the impending UP elections next January. It is not asking too much of someone who has spent almost 17 years in politics. The Congress party has been virtually consigned to oblivion in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and even Kerala. It is facing an existential crisis as never before. And with his partymen throwing in their lot with him, it is all the more incumbent upon Rahul to strengthen the party in the coming days and years in view of the 2024 general election.
It is a fact that the biggest impediment to his success and progress are his Gandhi antecedents. And no matter how hard he tries to shake off the dynasty tag, it will remain an albatross around his neck. In an interview to a TV channel in 2014, Rahul admitted that he did not “choose to be born in this family”.
For Rahul, 2024 is going to be his biggest challenge ever. Who knows, it could be the apotheosis of his political career. With his party in a downward spiral, Rahul now needs to grasp the nettle and explore the possibility of stitching up alliances with other parties. It is always a roll of the dice, no doubt, but much depends on how effectively he manages to convince prominent and mercurial leaders like Sharad Pawar, Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee to come on board.
He will have to frequently hold meetings with these political heavyweights and convince them about his political goals in no uncertain terms. Yes, it’s a difficult task, maybe even a Sisyphean one, but it is a challenge worth taking, as the need is being felt, as never before, for a strong anti-Modi front. Can Rahul achieve this seemingly intractable task? In politics, as they say, nothing is impossible.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi