Shakeel Ahmad was lucky to be in Chandigarh on April 28. Out of the blue, the Congress general secretary received a phone call from the office of party vice president Rahul Gandhi. He was told that Rahul would be visiting the grain markets of Punjab that afternoon.
Ahmad swung into action and made all arrangements in just four hours. Prominent leaders from different parts of the state were quickly alerted, and they rushed to receive Rahul. Initially, they were informed that he would be arriving on a SpiceJet flight. But then, Rahul hopped on to the general bogie of Sachkhand Express in Delhi, getting off at Ambala. This proved to be a security nightmare. He was surrounded by a huge crowd as he got off the train, jostling to shake hands with him and click selfies.
His partymen may have stressed over ensuring that the visit, planned at a short notice, went off smoothly, but they were also excited at seeing a remarkably different Rahul reaching out to the people, interacting with them, and more importantly, rattling the Congress’s political rivals.
Rahul has been on an overdrive ever since his return from a two-month-long sabbatical. And if the break, reportedly spent in southeast Asian locations, involved Vipassana and introspection, the results are dramatic. The post-sabbatical Rahul is different from the Rahul of yore. For one, Rahul, who has had a below average attendance, is coming to Parliament almost every day. And he did succeed in unsettling the BJP-led Union government with his interventions in the Lok Sabha, perhaps speaking on more occasions in the last 20 days than he had in the last ten years as an MP.
All eyes were on him as Rahul delivered an extremely effective speech on the agrarian crisis in the Lok Sabha. His 'suit boot ki sarkar' jibe was bang on target. As a senior Congress leader said, with four words, he succeeded in establishing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a friend of the corporates who did not care for the well-being of the farmers, the poor and the downtrodden.
Ahmad agreed: “Be it the issue of changes in the Land Acquisition Act, net neutrality or changes in the real estate bill to make it more pro-builders, there is a common thread running through Rahul's campaign, that of Modi helping the rich at the cost of the poor.”
Congress leaders cannot hide their excitement at seeing the party heir-apparent’s sudden burst of activity as this is something that they had been waiting for. In fact, Rahul was told, during consultations with leaders from across the country post the Lok Sabha debacle, that he should be seen and heard more, and that he should undertake a mass contact programme to reach out to people and party workers.
“We all knew that he had the right intentions and capabilities,” said Congress leader Ajay Maken. “However, we are pleasantly surprised at seeing the aggressive manner in which he has raised issues. It has enthused Congress workers throughout the country.” He said Rahul was now like a “general leading from the front”. Randeep Surjewala, who heads the Congress's communications department, said Rahul’s constant interventions and activism had electrified the cadre. “Yes, he is speaking more often,” he said. “He is speaking from his heart. He speaks with sincerity. He has made short and long interventions. And this will continue.”
But Rahul’s aides say he is the same person he was earlier. While the hectic pace of activity and public utterances may be new, he is sticking to his original ideological moorings. They also say that there were reasons why he chose to be low-profile and less articulate on issues, which earned him the tag of a reluctant and diffident politician.
“When you are in the opposition, you get much more independence to take up issues. When your party is in power, it is your government, your prime minister and your ministers. You have to be very cautious. You cannot be seen as fighting against your own government,” said a leader close to Rahul. The leader recalled how Rahul had spoken against the ordinance that sought to protect tainted legislators from disqualification, and how his outburst was interpreted as running down his own government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“The unpopularity of UPA-II rubbed off on him [Rahul] as he was part and parcel of the ruling dispensation,” said Ahmad. “The media projected a negative image of the government, and their representation of Rahul was also negative.”
But, there is a marked difference in how Rahul is reacting to issues now. He has been swift in pouncing on issues. When Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Dausa, Rajasthan, hanged himself during a farmers’ agitation in Delhi, Rahul rushed to the hospital where the body was taken. This was quite unlike the Rahul who was reluctant to go to the hospital in Lucknow and meet victims of the infamous sari stampede during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, as it would have amounted to taking political advantage out of a tragedy.
Rahul was earlier accused of missing from the scene whenever a major political development was taking place. For example, he was criticised for his fleeting parliamentary intervention when Anna Hazare's agitation against corruption was at its peak. His absence during the widespread protests against the Nirbhaya gangrape was also criticised.
Now, Rahul’s body language, too, seems to be different. There has been no rolling up of sleeves, and he appears to be more relaxed and confident in his interventions both inside and outside Parliament. He was quite confident as he took on Modi directly in Parliament, at least on eight occasions. He is willing to engage in repartee, revealing that he has a sense of humour, and seems to enjoy taking digs at Modi and the BJP.
Even while on leave, Rahul apparently insisted that the party should take up the net neutrality issue strongly with a forthright and clear party line. “A press conference was held and the Congress became the first party to speak out on the issue,” said a leader close to him.
Rahul has finally put an end to his absence on social media, with his debut on Twitter. The first tweet by @OfficeOfRG was on his upcoming visit to Telangana. The account was created on May 6, but the tweet appeared only the next day. The silence on day one generated quite a few jokes. Rahul has to learn sooner than later that he will have to be vocal online, too, to keep the followers (48,100 by 11pm on May 7) coming, and be open to flak as trolls won't be far behind.
As the tweet mentioned, Rahul's next stop will be Telangana. He will reach Hyderabad on May 11, meet students of Osmania University and drive down to Nirmal in Adilabad district. Though Rahul had wished to spend the night in the tribal hamlet, the idea was shot down by the Special Protection Group for fear of Maoists. He will, therefore, return to Hyderabad after meeting local leaders and farmers.
On May 12, he will be back in Adilabad for the Rythu Atmagourava Yatra. The yatra will begin from Variyala and end at Koratkal, where he will meet families of the five farmers who had committed suicide. There have been 700 suicides in the state. He will also meet farmers who lost their crops because of unseasonal rain. Congress leaders in the state hope that Rahul's visit will boost the morale of the workers in the state, where the Congress had a poor show, both in the Lok Sabha (two seats) and assembly (16 seats) elections despite the fact that the UPA had helped carve out the separate state.
The new Rahul has rattled the BJP, forcing it to rustle up its topmost leaders to take him on. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the Congress vice president was in a “rent-a-cause-a-day” mode. Countering Rahul’s charges in Parliament, he said, as Modi sat with a serious look on his face, “Ours is not a suit boot ki sarkar but a soojh boojh ki sarkar [a sensible government].”
Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot said: “The BJP is desperately trying to do perception correction. It has been pushed into a corner. And the credit for this goes to Rahul Gandhi. Within a year, he has totally rattled the BJP.”
A Rahul aide said that there were two great takeaways from the leader’s visits to the grain markets of Punjab. “Farmers’ dues amounting to Rs4,000 crore were ordered to be released by the Badal government the same night,” he said. “The next morning, a jittery Modi called an unscheduled meeting of his cabinet at 9am, and relaxed moisture norms for farmers beyond 14 per cent, something which Sonia Gandhi had demanded in her letter to the government.”
On April 20, when it was known that Rahul would speak on the agrarian crisis, the BJP had to rework its strategy in the Lok Sabha, effecting a realignment of the ministers who were to respond to the debate. It was felt that someone senior from the government should respond, and hence, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu spoke immediately after Rahul, leaving Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh to wrap up the government's defence.
“Wherever Rahulji goes, these people get nervous. It seems as if these leaders are suffering from Rahul phobia,” said Congress leader Rajiv Shukla.
Rahul’s activism gives a sneak peek into his revival plan for the party. It will be based on mass contact programmes, and projecting the Congress as the saviour of the poor and the marginalised and the earning class. There will also be constant monitoring of the poll promises made by the Modi government.
This is also a prelude to Rahul taking over from his mother, Sonia, as Congress president. According to a leader close to the family, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Vadra have taken a decision in this regard. “We can expect some movement on this to take place after the Parliament session is over,” said the leader.
With his leadership not to be tested electorally this year as the Congress has little stake in the upcoming assembly election in Bihar, the focus will be on what changes he brings about in the party. A highly placed source said that there would be some big changes in the party after Rahul takes over. For one, there would be an organisational revamp, and a new line of leadership would come to the fore. Rahul’s team would be a mix of the old and the new.
“Younger people will be brought in to rejuvenate the party. When you have to fight as the opposition party, you need younger people. However, the support of older people will also be taken,” the source said.
There will also be a style revamp, said the source. “His style is more hands-on and he is like, 'let us do it now rather than 20 days later',” he said. Rahul and Sonia are ideologically on the same page, but Rahul is expected to pursue issue-based politics. Also, his approach is expected to be largely centrist.
Rahul wants to empower the party workers and enable them to play a more meaningful role in the organisation. He also wants to bring in more accountability and put in place a process for regular monitoring of the work done by those holding posts in the party.
Clearly, there is a change in the air, and the Congress hopes Rahul will ring in the good times for it.
WITH LALITA IYER
Rahul Gandhi 2.0
April 16: Returns from a two-month sabbatical
April 18: Meets farmer leaders at his residence
April 19: Addresses farmers’ rally in Delhi
April 20: Makes a speech in the Lok Sabha on the agrarian crisis; calls Narendra Modi's government a 'suit boot ki sarkar'
April 22: Speaks on the net neutrality issue; also talks about the TIME article by US President Barack Obama praising Modi. “US president has never praised anyone like this after Mikhail Gorbachev. US president used to praise Gorbachev because he helped the United States,” says Rahul.
The same day, he visits Lady Hardinge Hospital, where the body of Gajendra Singh, who hanged himself at a farmers' rally in Delhi, was taken for post-mortem.
April 24: Treks to Kedarnath
April 28: Takes a train to Punjab to visit grain markets
April 30: Goes on a 15km padayatra in Vidarbha, Maharashtra; meets family members of farmers who committed suicide
_May 2: Meets aggrieved home buyers in Delhi and slams the real estate regulatory authority bill_
May 7: Attacks the government in the Lok Sabha over the scrapping of food park project in Amethi; terms it “politics of revenge”
* Once Rahul Gandhi takes over the party's reins, he would revamp the organisation, bringing in a new line of leadership and more young leaders at the top
* Ideologically, he is expected to vary very little from Sonia Gandhi. However, he will have a more hands-on and issue-based approach
* Decentralisation of power, with party workers playing a more meaningful role
* Regular monitoring of work done by the party, and party leaders will be made accountable