Rahul’s growing stature comes with its share of challenges

His measured aggression hit the mark this time round as he attacked Modi

PTI06_25_2024_000465B Rahul Gandhi | PTI

CONGRESS LEADER RAHUL GANDHI recently had an interaction with students protesting the malpractices in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admission to medical colleges. Rahul asked their opinion on what was wrong with the manner in which the exam was held. “Please tell me what we can do for you,” he told the students. “We will certainly raise the issue in Parliament.”

Rahul wants to be seen as the leader of the people who will take up cudgels on their behalf against a government that he claims is unfeeling towards the problems of the common man.
Akhilesh made faizabad MP Awadesh Prasad sit in the front row between him and Rahul―an obvious provocation to the BJP that had hoped to benefit from the inauguration of the Ram Temple.
It will require immense patience and tact on Rahul’s part to take the allies along and ensure that they are with the Congress in the long waiting game.

The demands of the students included scrapping the test and holding a retest, and overhauling the exam machinery. Here was the preeminent leader of the Congress, the principal opposition party, not imposing his own views on students but seeking to learn from them what he and his party could do for them.

The interaction gave a glimpse into the fashioning of Rahul as a leader who listens to people and empathises with them. And Rahul’s attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government over the NEET paper leak showed what his approach was going to be as the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha.

“The opposition has demolished the concept of Narendra Modi. This concept was based on thousands of crores worth of marketing and the fear of agencies,” Rahul said at a press conference at the Congress headquarters in Delhi. “Now, nobody is afraid of him. He is psychologically on the backfoot. He is not bothered about NEET or any other issue. His sole agenda is to save his government.”

On the back of a morale-boosting performance in the polls, with the Congress almost touching the triple-digit mark and the party-led INDIA bloc occupying almost half of the new Lok Sabha and succeeding in limiting the BJP to 240 seats, Rahul has made his intent clear. He wants to be seen as the leader of the people who will take up cudgels on their behalf against a government that he claims is unfeeling towards the problems of the common man. And it is only apt that he should be the leader of opposition in the new Lok Sabha, for he has firmly established himself as the face of the opposition and the main challenger of Modi.

In his first speech in the Lok Sabha as LoP, as he rose to congratulate Om Birla on his election as speaker, Rahul said, “Of course, the government has political power, but the opposition also represents the voice of India’s people. And this time, the opposition represents significantly more voice of the Indian people than it did last time.”

PTI06_25_2024_000101B New innings: Rahul greeting Om Birla (right) after he was elected speaker of the Lok Sabha, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister Kiren Rijiju look on | PTI

This is the first constitutional post that Rahul will hold. The LoP enjoys cabinet rank and is a member of collegiums that select the heads of crucial investigating agencies and watchdogs, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Election Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Lokpal and the Central Information Commission. As LoP, Rahul is also expected to head the public accounts committee in Parliament, which serves as a check on the government, especially with respect to its expenditure. Its primary function is to examine the audit report that the Comptroller and Auditor General tables in Parliament.

There was no LoP in the Lok Sabha for the past 10 years, as no opposition party had secured the required numbers to claim the post in the previous two Lok Sabhas. The Congress had slumped to 44 and 52 seats in 2014 and 2019, respectively.

“In the 18th Lok Sabha, the house of the people shall truly reflect the aspirations of the last person standing, with Rahul Gandhi becoming their voice,” said Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. “I am confident that a leader who has traversed the length and breadth of the country, from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir, and from Manipur to Maharashtra, shall raise the voice of the people, especially the marginalised and the poor.”

Pushing ahead: Rahul during Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district on February 5 | PTI Pushing ahead: Rahul during Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district on February 5 | PTI

Twenty years after he made his electoral debut and became a member of the Lok Sabha, and after a string of demoralising defeats since the Lok Sabha debacle of 2014, the 54-year-old Rahul is enjoying his best moment in politics. After the poll results, he has come across as a leader who will focus on the issues of the people, be it NEET, the fire tragedy in a gaming zone in Rajkot, Gujarat, or the train accident in Darjeeling, West Bengal.

This is, in a way, a culmination of a journey―from being seen as a reluctant politician whose political acumen and leadership skills were suspect, to a leader who is being taken seriously and whose words, as has been proved by the poll results, have resonated with the people. The Rahul that was witnessed in these elections enjoyed engaging with the crowds, and his ‘khata khat’ slogan clicked. His measured aggression hit the mark this time round as he attacked Modi, unlike in 2019 when the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ jibe is believed to have backfired.

Over the course of his two-decade-long political career, Rahul has fashioned himself as a pro-poor leader, and in recent times, as the exact opposite of Modi―not a figure that bears down upon you with his larger-than-life political presence, but a leader who is accessible and will sit down with you for a cup of tea. Also, the message conveyed is that if Modi allegedly works only for a few rich industrialists, Rahul works for the vast majority. One of the things he said during the campaign was, “Main aapka hoon, wo unke hain (I belong to you, he belongs to them).”

This process of positioning Rahul as the opposite of Modi intensified during the pandemic, when the Congress leader sharpened his attacks on the government for being unfeeling towards the plight of people affected by the lockdown. The two Bharat Jodo Yatras gave it a final push.

Certainly, the big turning point in the Rahul story was the Kanniyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra, which had him walking more than 4,000km in five months since September 2022. Besides setting the tone for the party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections that focused on issues of price rise, unemployment and social justice, it is regarded as having transformed the image of Rahul. He was always dressed in a white T-shirt and dark-coloured cargo pants during the yatra, and continued to be in the same attire during the Lok Sabha campaign. For him, he says, the white T-shirt symbolises transparency, simplicity and perseverance. He did change into a white kurta-pyjama on his first day in the Lok Sabha as LoP.

PTI05_08_2024_000063A Sister comes to the south: Priyanka Gandhi campaigning for Rahul in Rae Bareli in May. She will contest from Wayanad, the constituency Rahul had represented in the previous Lok Sabha | PTI

In recent months, he has been seen picking mahua flowers with women in a forest near Umaria in Madhya Pradesh or taking a ride on a tempo traveller in Haryana with a bunch of daily-wage labourers in response to the allegation made by Modi that the Congress had received tempo-loads of black money from “Adani and Ambani” or taking a ride on the Delhi Metro Rail where he happily posed for selfies with commuters.

He has also come across as a family man who, during the intense poll campaign, took time out to leaf through old family albums and look at sepia-toned photographs along with his mother, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, or pull the cheeks of his sister, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, during a public meeting in Rae Bareli and thank her for campaigning for him. And he has deferred to Kharge, treating him like the elder of the Congress family.

It is also a moment of vindication for Rahul who has braved the ‘Pappu’ barbs of his political opponents, and whose leadership abilities have been questioned both within and outside his party. Rahul’s supporters point out that he won from Rae Bareli and Wayanad with huge margins of 3.9 lakh votes and 3.6 lakh votes, respectively, while Modi won Varanasi by 1.52 lakh votes, a sharp drop from the margin of 4.79 lakh in 2019 and 3.72 lakh in 2014.

PTI06_25_2024_000221A Stepping up: Rahul arriving in Parliament for the first session of the 18th Lok Sabha | PTI

“Rahul Gandhi ji’s imprint on the 2024 campaign has to be understood far greater by analysts sitting in the ecosystem in Delhi,” said Gaurav Gogoi, MP, who was the party’s deputy leader in the previous Lok Sabha. “[He] made democracy and Constitution, unemployment, price rise, caste census, Agniveer and the Mahalakshmi scheme the talking points when the prime minister spoke about ‘mangalsutra’ and other things. He clearly defined what the Congress stands for; we owe him a debt for it. Many of these analysts simply do not have the courage or even the decency to accept they were wrong.”

Besides the white T-shirt routine, there was another constant that came to define the campaign of the Congress and the opposition as a whole―the pocket edition of the Constitution. Rahul held aloft a small red-coloured copy of the Constitution at all his public meetings. The perceived threat to the Constitution from the Modi government is believed to have tilted the scales in favour of the opposition, with the beneficiaries of reservation, especially the dalits, gravitating towards the INDIA bloc.

The sentiment of the fight in the Lok Sabha polls persists. The battle lines are clearly drawn, as was evident when the 18th Lok Sabha convened for its inaugural session on June 24. Right opposite Modi, and aptly so, on the opposition benches sat Rahul, the new LoP.

Rahul and party colleagues came to Parliament carrying the pocket-size copy of the Constitution. Members of INDIA bloc partner Samajwadi Party carried somewhat bigger copies of the Constitution, which were in Hindi. Before the start of the proceedings, opposition members assembled near the Gandhi statue outside Parliament to protest the BJP’s alleged plans to change the Constitution. As Modi walked up to the podium to take oath as a member of the new Lok Sabha, Rahul and other Congress members held up their copies of the Constitution. They did it again when Union Home Minister Amit Shah took oath.

And when it was his turn, Rahul walked up to the podium, held up a copy of the Constitution, and took oath. He ended with the slogan, “Jai Hind, Jai Samvidhan!” amid slogans of “Jodo, Jodo, Bharat Jodo” being raised by his party colleagues.

It was a somewhat subdued BJP and an ebullient opposition that entered the Lok Sabha. Barbs and snide remarks were exchanged, a departure from the bonhomie that was witnessed at least on the inaugural day of the Lok Sabha in earlier times. When Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan rose to take oath, the opposition members cried out, “NEET, NEET! Shame, Shame!” When Rajiv Ranjan Singh of the Janata Dal (United) took oath, Kalyan Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress recited the Hindi song, “Dost dost na raha!” The reference was to the sudden move by Singh’s boss Nitish Kumar to quit the INDIA bloc and join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

To rub it in, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and fellow party MPs came wearing their trademark red topis and gamchas (scarves), a reminder to the BJP about the major loss incurred by the party in Uttar Pradesh. Akhilesh also made the party’s MP from Faizabad, Awadesh Prasad, sit in the front row between him and Rahul―an obvious provocation to the BJP that had hoped to benefit from the inauguration of the Ram Temple ahead of the polls.

“The Congress has since 2021 been working in close coordination with around 24 opposition parties in Parliament,” said Manickam Tagore, Congress general secretary and the party’s whip in the previous Lok Sabha. “It is this floor coordination in Parliament that formed the basis for the formation of the INDIA alliance later. We will certainly take that forward. We have fought an election together and we will be a formidable force in the house. The Congress has doubled its numbers in the Lok Sabha and the other INDIA alliance parties are also much stronger in the house now.”

The first issue of confrontation between the government and the opposition was the appointment of the speaker. For the first time in decades, there was an election to the speaker’s post. It showed that the BJP, which does not have majority on its own, is keen to signal that it is still in control of the proceedings, while the opposition wants to assert its newfound strength.

The INDIA bloc took an aggressive stand and fielded the Congress’s eight-term MP Kodikunnil Suresh as its speaker candidate against Birla, who was renominated to the post by the BJP. By fielding a dalit candidate such as Suresh, the opposition wanted to convey the message that the Modi government is anti-dalit. The opposition also attacked the government for overlooking Suresh for the post of pro-tem speaker, saying Suresh with his eight terms in the Lok Sabha should have been nominated instead of the seven-time MP Bhartruhari Mahtab of the BJP.

Rahul has accused the government of disregarding settled norms and traditions, and refusing to offer to the opposition the post of deputy speaker, which lay vacant throughout the term of the 17th Lok Sabha. “The prime minister said the opposition should work constructively and cooperate with the government. [Union Minister] Rajnath Singh ji called up Kharge ji. He sought our support for their candidate for the speaker’s post. The entire opposition said we would support your speaker but the convention is that the post of deputy speaker should come to the opposition…. Rajnath Singh ji did not get back to Kharge ji. Modi ji talks about constructive cooperation and then our leader is insulted,” he told journalists outside Parliament.

It is clear that the opposition will not relent. The parties are armed with a list of issues to raise in Parliament, with the NEET paper leak on top of the agenda. By the looks of it, the budget session of Parliament, to be convened next month, will be stormy. “So far, in this government, no resignations took place and accountability was not fixed. But now, resignations will happen because the situation has changed. To begin with, the Modi government has failed miserably in conducting ‘one nation, one exam’, and we will hold the government accountable,” said Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Keeping the opposition united would be a challenge, though. This was evident at the very start of the session, when the Trinamool Congress claimed it was not consulted by the Congress over Suresh’s nomination for the speaker contest. The Congress’s top leaders then reached out to their counterparts in the Trinamool to sort out the matter. Differences were visible on seeking division of the house for election of the speaker or the resolution on Emergency read out by Birla.

The nomination of Rahul as LoP was conveyed to the floor leaders of all INDIA bloc partners at a meeting convened by Kharge at his residence on the evening of June 25. While it is a boost to Rahul’s stature, it comes with its own share of challenges. It is learnt that a major concern for Rahul as he deliberated on whether he should accede to his party’s demand to take up the post was that he also needed to focus on building on the momentum provided by the Lok Sabha poll results and revive the party. Assembly elections are due in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand later this year, and Jammu and Kashmir could also have polls this year. Delhi and Bihar go to the polls in 2025. It is imperative for the Congress and its allies to edge out the BJP in these elections to keep up the pressure at the national level. Also, Rahul has to build on the successes of the party in the Hindi heartland, and that is the reason he has opted to keep the Rae Bareli seat.

“He was concerned about the organisational requirements in the coming months because he has been spearheading the party’s campaign and has, through his public engagements, generated a buzz for the party at the grassroots,” said a senior Congress leader. “But it is also important that he takes on Modi directly in Parliament. That will be amplified outside. It is also crucial because of the changed arithmetic in the Lok Sabha and the uncertainties that we have to be prepared for.”

It will require immense patience and tact on Rahul’s part to take the allies along and ensure that they are with the Congress in the long waiting game. Also, he has not had great acceptability with some leaders in the opposition bloc. But he has, in recent times, worked on enhancing his rapport with the regional stalwarts in the grouping. He has taken a special initiative to reach out to Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar. The visual of Rahul holding the veteran leader’s hand tight as a gesture of affection and support at a recent joint media briefing of the INDIA bloc was telling. He has also made an effort to reach out to Trinamool chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. After Trinamool leaders complained that the party had not been consulted on the speaker issue, Rahul apparently spoke to Mamata on party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee’s phone to assuage her concerns. He has an excellent rapport with DMK president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who he refers to as “big brother”. There was great camaraderie between Rahul and Akhilesh during the campaign in UP, which percolated down to the grassroots. And RJD chief Tejashwi Yadav has been a staunch supporter of Rahul as the face of the opposition.

“The bonding that we saw between Akhilesh Yadav ji and Rahul Gandhi ji shows that the alliance should continue. There is incentive for the two parties in doing so, and the sentiment of the people is also for the alliance to continue,” said Javed Ali Khan, SP leader and Rajya Sabha member who has been a key member of INDIA bloc discussions.

Certainly, Rahul has achieved his biggest electoral success. To build on it, though, will be an uphill task.


THE LEADER OF the Opposition is the parliamentary chairperson of the largest party, or coalition of parties, in the opposition. A 2012 booklet on Parliament says that the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha is considered a “shadow prime minister with a shadow cabinet”. It is a cabinet-rank post.

As the leader of the opposition Rahul will sit on crucial committees such as Public Accounts (chairman), Public Undertakings, Estimates and several Joint Parliamentary Committees.

He is also entitled to be member of the selection committees responsible for appointing heads of statutory bodies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Information Commission, Lokpal and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as election commissioners.


* Visited Niyamgiri hills in Odisha in 2010 to express solidarity with the Dongria Kondh tribals who were protesting against the setting up of a bauxite mine in the area. “The Niyamgiri hills are your God, your dharma. My dharma is that every voice, including that of the poor and adivasis should be heard.”

* Agitation in Bhatta-Parsaul, Uttar Pradesh, against land acquisition in 2011 by the Mayawati government. He later said that his first fight was against land acquisition. “I was stubborn on not allowing dilution of land acquisition laws.”

* Met the family of a dalit rape victim in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in October 2020 along with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra after a stand-off with the police at the Delhi-UP border which initially did not let the Congress convoy pass through. “No power can stifle the voice of the victim's family.”

* Yatra in Punjab in October 2020 against the three contentious farm laws passed by the Modi government. “If you look at my actions, you will see that I feel for people against whom injustice is being done. You see a strong man beating a weak man, I will fight for the weak man.”

* During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, he sat down on a footpath in Delhi with a group of migrant workers who were walking from Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, to talk about their struggles. “Workers were walking to their homes because the Modi government announced a lockdown without giving them any warning. Many workers died on the way.”

* Started the Bharat Jodo Yatra in September 2022. “For us, this is a journey, an attempt at understanding what is going on, on the ground in India, and an attempt at undoing some of the damage that the BJP and the RSS have done.”

* Visited the strife-torn Manipur in June 2023. “I visited Manipur to share the pain of the people. I will do whatever it takes to bring peace.”