There is no doubt that his timing for (attempted) change is impeccable. At the fag-end of the Modi sarkar's first year, there is a frisson of disappointment in some key places. Rahul Gandhi has used his new image to attempt what Manny Pacquiao was doing with Floyd Mayweather Jr... in their much-publicized Las Vegas bout. The prize money at stake here is more substantial than the boxing fest guaranteed. But the prize is largely Rahul Gandhi's, and even if he comes off like Pacquiao only as second best. He will then have achieved the impossible. For a man who was written off just two months ago, as a political nonstarter, the image transformation is quite substantial, even to a seasoned 'Image Guru'.
Rahul has chosen, quite adroitly, the lowest-hanging fruit - disappointment in the farming community combined with anxiety about the new Land Acquisition Bill. The images that Rahul Gandhi portrayed are choreographed cleverly, but not entirely perfectly (but of that more later). The images are skillfully composed: talking to farmers and labourers perched on boris in the mandis of Punjab, squatting in trains, the day-long samvad padyatra with families of farmers who committed suicide in Amravati, Maharashtra.
There are comfortingly some elements that Rahul has carefully chosen to build on from his own recent past. He has exercised continuity - remember his protests in Uttar Pradesh over land for farmers? He has tried to draw a line between his attacks on the drug mafia in Punjab and the poor state of the rural communities there today. Continuity clearly is a vehicle that any image reconstruction requires. It is one that however needs enormous and substantial follow-up.
There are other instances too of Rahul Gandhi seemingly determined to project a new image, most tellingly in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament, where his intervention in the debate on the Land Bill was surprising. But Rahul has also taken 'baba steps' to break past perceptions. The padyatra to Kedarnath, synched to arrive just in time for the opening of the sacred shrine, was not without political symbolism, even if it was dubbed as a personal visit. Certainly it revealed that he was willing to take the battle for Hindu hearts and minds to the rival camp. It was just the move to catch political rivals by surprise; a message vastly different from that of those whose shrill claims of being the only voice of the Hindus are increasingly wearing thin. While continuity and consistency are vital, he has shown that the new emerging Rahul Gandhi is not averse to adding vital new dimensions to his persona.
Some new elements of imagery that Rahul has chosen are tough ones. Will it work depends in one instance on what may emerge eventually in brother-in-law Robert Vadra's interests in the same area. By meeting with harassed small flat buyers in Delhi, Rahul was making a brave attempt to tackle a constituency that Modi clearly had won the hearts and wallets of a long time ago. So he has stepped into new territory with a distinct divergence from worrying about farmers, the landless and tribals - long his only enthusiasm in days of yore.
Interestingly, there are elements from the past which Rahul has carefully chosen to jettison. For example there were no highly-publicized visits overnight to the homes of 'peasants', no 'Kalavati' moments, and no sit-down dinners in humble hovels of the marginalised.
Does all this actually work? The acid test of course is going to be whether the young scion decides to take on the infinitely bigger task of attempting to remake his own party. Redoing your own image is one thing, but redoing what is arguably the world's oldest political party is totally another thing. The entrenched interests, powerful citadels, carefully guarded-over multiple elections all deserve scrutiny. It's that image too that weighs down his progress. If they are like a ball and chain on his image, then these are big, brazen balls indeed.
While opposing government policies and actions is important as an opposition member, what is also required is providing an alternative to craft an image that is beyond just anti-government. Gandhi's two recent speeches gave no hint of an alternative. Yes, it is important to raise issues in Parliament, it is equally important to follow up - in RG's case, he spoke on farmer suicides and land acquisition bill, but his absence during Home Minister Rajnath Singh's response was telling. It displayed a damaging lack of seriousness, of days gone by (or so we were told).
The recent Nepal condolence snafu only served to highlight the "Rahul as Pappu" image. The most charitable explanation, of course, was that he was merely reading a message on his phone that came in while he was supposed to be busy writing in the Visitors' Book at the embassy. But the lasting image was that of a lad who still hasn't quite found his mojo and relies on aides, add-ons and plug-ins more than politicians can afford. Crafting your own message and being seen as capable of crafting it are two entirely different things. But both are critical to anyone who hopes to make a mark in an environment dominated by an Image Natural like Modi.
Whether it is Modi's 56-inch chest versus Rahul's 58-day break, what's eventually going to make or break images is action. Results matter - and, of course, what happens when the cameras alight on you when you are not watching!
(Dilip Cherian founder Perfect Relations is Image Guru to Corporates and Parties, an editorial flaneur he's sometimes syndicated, occasionally talking head for TV but specialist in giving face-lifts to beleaguered corporations and politicos.)
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