Rahul Gandhi is not the best of speakers. He is neither fiery nor dramatic. He is simple. And that simplicity is sometimes deceptive. It is this deceptiveness which Modi has to watch out for. The three- day Congress session ended with his speech
which can't be described as transformative but was certainly ideological and strategic. Rahul is not a great communicator like Modi or even like Kejriwal. He is more professorial; he likes to explain, he likes to elucidate, he likes to underline. Despite being the challenger, he is not volatile or aggressive; he loves to be an underdog and a nice person. But the question is: can a nice person tame the bull in the china shop?
Long ago, I wrote here
that the Congress is going through an existential crisis, a crisis of gigantic proportions with three dimensions - leadership crisis, ideological crisis and generational crisis. In 2014, the Congress was led by a generation whose values and working style were rooted in the past. Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee were brilliant administrators, seasoned politicians, but they were born in pre-Independence India, grew up in a socialist environment, and were a product of the Cold War mind set. Manmohan Singh was undoubtedly a renaissance man - he changed India's economy single-handedly, which triggered revolutionary changes in the consciousness of the society at large, fashioned new values and laid down new traditions.
But by 2014, the country needed someone who could communicate better, who could represent the newly emerging aspirational class, who could make this class feel strong, powerful and masculine. Manmohan Singh and the Congress failed that. They failed to connect to the people. While Modi and his team took over all of social media and a host of communication tools, the Congress appeared to be hibernating. Now the same Congress has become robust on social media, countering the BJP powerfully in every sphere: propaganda is forcefully met with propaganda, lies with lies and truth with truth. The generational shift has done the magic.
Rahul Gandhi at the key Congress meet in Delhi
Rahul Gandhi himself is also no longer the "Pappu"
that Modi made the country believe he was. He is confident, he is energetic, he is articulate, and he is witty in his own way. Since the Gujarat election, he is a changed person. The old doubts about his leadership qualities are slowly fading in the background. The Congress's biggest challenge was ideological. Modi's attack on the Congress' liberalism, secularism, its legacy of the freedom struggle and its icons was brutal and one-dimensional. The Congress looked helpless, withdrawn, wounded, jaded and suffering from guilt. This self-doubt was lethal.
It is so ironical that the party which led the freedom struggle was painted as the party with a dark past; the party of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad was shown as leaderless; the party that was instrumental in the division of Pakistan was branded as anti-national; the party that changed India's face from a country of the poor to a bustling economy was termed a-party-that-has-done-nothing; the party that devised the RTI to fight corruption was called the most corrupt party. Such was the power of the propaganda that to align with Congress was seen to be blasphemous. The challenge was to get out of this tunnel, make the Congress credible and rebrand it as a party of the future. I won't say that Rahul has been completely successful, but serious attempts had been made to ideologically re-invent itself.
The Congress session this weekend showcased all the gains of the recent past. If Sonia Gandhi called Modi "dramebaaz"
, Rahul mocked him as a leader with no vision, on the wrong side of the history and ethics. The effort for ideological rebranding was on full display at the plenary session. Rahul Gandhi was aggressive, attacked the BJP's nationalism, mocked at their role in freedom struggle, ridiculed their concept of nation and nationhood, termed their ideology exclusive and in service of crony capitalism and the corrupt; he borrowed references from Hindu mythology and compared the BJP's arrogance with that of the Kauravas and called himself a Pandava.
Congress leaders at party's plenary session in Delhi on Sunday
A few years ago, it was unthinkable that Rahul Gandhi would have discussed the Congress's understanding of the Hindu religion. He explained that Hinduism in his opinion is liberal, unlike that of the RSS. It's all-encompassing and universal, respects every religion on the planet, does not breed hate, and does not necessarily reside only in temples. This statement is bold and indicative of the fact that the Congress is willing to experiment with a new understanding of the secularism, wants to distance itself from the leftist idea of secularism which negates religion. This shows that his temple-hopping during the Gujarat election was not state-specific and is a part of a larger ideological design.
The BJP/RSS had tried to hijack the Congress legacy of the freedom struggle. Rahul Gandhi has shown the zeal to fight back. He said when freedom fighters were sleeping on the floor in British jails, the biggest icon of Hindutva
, Savarkar, was busy writing letters to the British begging them for mercy. He told the audience that Gandhi-ji
had spent 15 years in jail. He reminded people how the RSS excludes the Dalits and the legacy of Ambedkar, how it commodifies women, and seeks cultural hegemony over the Tamils and citizens of the north-eastern states.
What was especially refreshing is his admission that the Congress has failed to rise to the expectations of the people and committed mistakes. This was a smart move to underline the arrogance of Modi and his government. But the Congress should not forget that Modi is made of a different mettle. He is gladiatorial in his instinct, has remarkable resilience to adjust and change, and has massive talent to surprise with new moves. After the losses in the recent by-polls, he is greatly wounded - and a wounded Modi is more dangerous than a sombre one. He knows that unlike 2014, the battle for 2019 will be more difficult and strenuous. Rahul should always remember that when Modi attacks, he does not spare an inch and is the most ruthless leader India has ever seen. There is another issue. Re-invention is not easy to translate on the ground. Rahul Gandhi has just one year. In my opinion, the 2019 elections are more a test for Rahul Gandhi than for Modi. It is Rahul who has to prove that he is the worthy grandson of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Can he? That is the question.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.