Leadership is about handling pressure - with dignity and grace without ceding an inch to an opponent in a crucial fight. For me, Rahul Gandhi came up aces in his reply to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's despicable comment on his late father Rajiv Gandhi. At a rally yesterday, Modi said "Your father's life ended as Bhrashtachari No 1" (most corrupt). Clearly, Modi has never heard of not speaking ill of the dead, quite apart from a man who was assassinated. But even in new India, habituated to the bar dropping ever lower in public discourse, this was a jibe too far. Rajiv Gandhi died in a terror attack in May 1991.
Rahul Gandhi replied on Twitter making it clear he will accept no slur about his father's legacy, that the election remains very much a contest, and that he holds good to his earlier deflation of feeling no hate for any opponent including Modi who has tested the Gandhis with vicious personal attacks. Take a look at his tweet.
Modi Ji,— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) May 5, 2019
The battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won't protect you.
All my love and a huge hug.
This was Gandhi effectively contrasting his code of conduct with the PM's coarse jibes. And it truly sounded more convincing than when Gandhi walked across parliament and gave an unwilling Modi a hug in July last year.
The hug ambush by Gandhi in his "love guru" avatar was somewhat diluted when he followed it up with a wink at friend and party leader Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Gandhi's response today underlines how much he has matured as a leader after a reluctant and slow start - a start which, critics point out, lasted several years and would have found no tolerance in a party less sycophantic than the Congress.
But Gandhi seems to have now understood how to press Modi's buttons. His "chowkidaar chor hai" slogan is used by Mamata Banerjee at her rallies too, for example.
Certainly, the image of global statesman that Modi was assiduously cultivating has unravelled further with this campaign. Take his party's decision to put up terror-accused Pragya Thakur in Bhopal as its candidate. Modi himself given many dog whistle speeches which have been cleared by the Election Commison though not without consistent dissent from one of the three officials who heard the complaints against him.
It is natural to assume that the PM's remarks are on account of the election being not a walkover for the BJP, as was initially assumed, but a proper contest. Consider some recent Modi quotes. "Congress and its allies are contesting the Lok Sabha elections to give a free hand to terrorists." Or "Rahul Gandhi is washing the sins of his father every day."
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took a cue from Modi and called Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi "Chunavi Hindus" (Election-only Hindus). Jaitley also mocked Gandhi's claims of being a "janeu-wearing Brahmin" (sacred thread), saying the Gandhi family was frequenting temples now but, did not do so in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 elections.
What may be enabling Rahul Gandhi's inner Zen is the new and unexpected support from Mayawati who had shut him out of her anti-BJP alliance with Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. Yesterday, Modi said publicly that Akhilesh Yadav is secretly conspiring with the Congress against her. Mayawati retaliated in today saying "PM Modi is trying to divide the SP and the BSP to save himself and his reputation because the BJP is losing the election". She then gave a public call to her supporters to back the Congress in Amethi and Raebareli which votes tomorrow (the Gathbandhan has not put up candidates against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in these constituencies)
Mayawati, mercurial, easily provoked and keen on power, has said a lot by showing her support for the Congress. No wonder Rahul Gandhi, often at the receiving end of her tirades, is in the mood for love.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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