Congress leader Rahul Gandhi speaks during a recent public meeting in Mumbai Image Credit: ANI

“Rahul Gandhi is one of the most well-read people I know. He has a deep understanding across an entire spectrum of subjects, and I learn a lot from him. I have never gone to him with an idea which he hasn’t made better by adding value. He has great clarity of thought and vision, which makes it easy to align with what he stands and fights for,” says Supriya Shrinate, the assertive chief of the Congress Information Technology cell, regarding her boss Rahul Gandhi.

Interestingly, anyone you speak to in the Congress now, on or off the record, will tell you that when it comes to ideology and policies, Gandhi is the last word. This marks a significant shift from when Rahul Gandhi, 52, was the President of the party.

Political commentators rarely get things right, but as readers of SWAT ANALYSIS in Gulf News know, I had mentioned that Gandhi isn’t seeking organisational power; rather, he is becoming the chief ideologue of the oldest political party in India.

After a near-purge of naysayers, especially those seeking power incentives like dynastic politicians Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitendra Prasada, R P N Singh, and Himanta Biswa Sarma to the BJP, the Congress has become a more cohesive party — no longer perpetually second-guessing a diluted version of Hindutva.

OPN Rahul Gandhi
The Gandhi scion displays an innate ease in navigating public engagements and mass contact programmes in India

Politics of love

Gandhi now has a new role — the chief ideologue of India’s oldest political party, and he’s even the brand ambassador of “Mohhabat ki dukaan” (love shop) in this fresh iteration of “Gandhigiri.” Gandhi’s apparent message opposes what he sees as Modi and the BJP’s “politics of divisiveness and hate.”

Is the party now filled with Gandhis, with all three family members actively involved in politics?

I interviewed half a dozen Congress leaders for this column, and they unanimously agreed that the ‘Gandhi twofer,’ an offer comprising two elements but sold for the price of one, best describes the two Gandhi siblings. The BJP’s advertisements claiming they are rivals are deemed ridiculous.

Leaders say that Priyanka Gandhi is the party’s chief campaigner and will likely contest the Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh, perhaps from Amethi or Rai Bareilly (Sonia Gandhi’s seat).

Gandhi might also take on Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, from his Varanasi seat. Although she may not trounce Modi, this could establish her political stature, especially if she doesn’t contest from another safe seat to cushion the potential loss. Most leaders point out that Sonia Gandhi, the former Congress president, has retired and is unlikely to contest elections again.

A case of love spurned

Is India embracing the Gandhi brand wholeheartedly? The jury is still out, but there are some significant indications.

Large parts of the Indian media neglected to mention that the Congress’s sweep in Karnataka was fundamentally an ideological clash between Gandhi and Modi. In a desperate bid to win, Modi, who conducted a record number of over 20 rallies, conflated the Bajrang Dal (which the Congress promised to ban in its manifesto) with Lord Hanuman.

Modi urged voters to think of Hanumanji when casting their votes. They didn’t vote for the BJP. Modi’s intervention came after the BJP had already made the Karnataka elections about Hijab, Halal, and Tipu Sultan — familiar themes. What was unusual was that the Karnataka voters didn’t fall for it, registering their protest against dismal governance.

Gandhi remained steadfast in his conviction that the Congress should neither retract its promise to ban the Bajrang Dal (which seems to have been forgotten by the Congress government) nor engage in the BJP’s familiar charged-up Hindutva politics. This remained true even as large sections of the media wrote off the Congress campaign, suggesting that the ban was a gift to Modi that he would exploit for electoral gain.

As the Congress prepares for the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan elections, tailoring the campaign around local issues, Kamalnath — whose government was toppled by Scindia’s switch to the BJP with his group of MLAs — wants to exact revenge. Priyanka Gandhi is part of his plan to teach Scindia a lesson. It’s clearly a case of love spurned, as Gandhi plans to hold a record number of rallies against the turncoat.

The Karnataka win held psychological significance for other Congress leaders and, more importantly, for the Congress cadre. It served as a teachable moment, demonstrating that communal and divisive politics could be countered by actively contesting it as an ideology rather than diluting it with a lighter version of Hindutva.

For the longest time, India wondered about Gandhi’s political convictions, as he appeared to lack both passion and conviction for politics, treating it as a tiresome family business that the fifth-generation dynast with a silver spoon wanted to escape from with frequent vacations abroad.

This sentiment was consistent with family tradition — former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once famously said his reason for entering politics was “to help mummy” (Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister).

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Gandhi's ideological convictions

Modi’s BJP seized the first-mover advantage on social media, portraying Gandhi as a privileged dilettante with limited intellect — a quintessential “Pappu,” as they dubbed him. This became the punchline to a political joke made viral on an industrial scale by the BJP’s IT cell, a narrative I also exposed in my investigative book, “I am a troll inside the secret digital army of the BJP.”

What the BJP hadn’t anticipated was Gandhi’s resilience. Despite losing two consecutive general elections, losing his family’s stronghold of Amethi, and becoming the subject of India’s biggest political joke, Gandhi persevered. He once said, “10,000 people in a call centre are ruining my image, but I don’t care.”

It was BJP leadership’s personal attacks on his family that finally prompted Gandhi to take his legacy and political career seriously. Gandhi represented the antithesis of Modi — a leader in the country who would never compromise or back down from confronting Modi. Voters sensed this. While other leaders might make deals with the BJP despite investigations, Gandhi refused to do so.

Through the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi solidified his ideological convictions of love versus hate. The Yatra capitalised on Gandhi’s strengths — physical fitness and the ability to energise the cadre wherever he walked. It also allowed Rahul to discover newer facets of India, akin to Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Discovery of India,” but in a 2.0 version.

As time passed since the Yatra, other opposition leaders have fewer doubts about Gandhi, while the BJP continues its aggressive campaign against him. When BJP leaders hysterically claimed that he had winked at them in Parliament, popular opinion didn’t buy the claim.

Previously, Gandhi had been portrayed as a devout “janeu-wearing Brahmin” who visited many temples, but this image didn’t resonate. Confronting Hindutva as an ideology, however, did.

While the media dismissed the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the BJP was more strategic. It sought retribution — Gandhi had his Lok Sabha membership cancelled, ostensibly by a court order. The Modi government promptly asked him to vacate the MP bungalow where he had lived for 19 years. Gandhi has since returned as the MP from Wayanad, as a court stayed his conviction, but he has declined to reclaim his former allocated bungalow.

The Modi government’s aggressive pursuit of Gandhi also led ordinary people to view it as excessive. Why would a two-term Prime Minister and strong leader go after a failed politician with such vengeance? To Gandhi’s credit, he didn’t complain or play the victim card; he vacated his house on the government’s schedule and explained that he was out of Parliament because he questioned BJP’s ties with Adani.

India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi gestures during a media briefing on the sidelines of the third meeting of the opposition INDIA Alliance in Mumbai on August 31, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

New Gandhigiri

Supriya Shrinate now symbolises the new, lean, and fearless Congress party. It is aggressive and unafraid to take on the government. The Congress is now setting the agenda on social media — the new battleground — and is making its presence felt on Instagram.

Shrinate, in a SWAT analysis of Gandhi, says, “He is receptive to new ideas, and his willingness to listen to different viewpoints is encouraging. I like working with him because he genuinely respects and cares for people. He is who he appears to be — an honest man without any false pretence. His high level of empathy also makes him a great boss. He practices what he preaches publicly.

Even in private conversations with party colleagues, he speaks about the need to fight a good fight with love and truth. I admire a boss who walks the talk. There are things he believes in and is willing to bear any cost to protect those ideals. It’s this courage of conviction that makes him fearless — an attribute I most admire about my leader.”

Shrinate minces no words when she addresses the issue of disinformation. “The BJP weaponises misinformation and spreads fake news with the sole purpose of assassinating reputations, maligning opponents, and deliberately causing disharmony. We have come across cases where social tension and violence have erupted due to the hate and disinformation campaign of the BJP. In INC, we aggressively respond to any lies and diligently present facts. Our agility and accuracy have put the BJP on the back foot."

"We call out their fake propaganda and counter it with hard facts. Unfortunately, it’s no longer anonymous trolls spreading fake news; MPs and Ministers have taken up this task. They have been caught lying and misleading even in Parliament. We are committed to calling them out, and fact-checks follow as soon as possible. We have established quick response teams backed by researchers for this purpose. Ultimately, there is no substitute for truth and factual information, which is why the Congress is now setting the narrative, and the BJP is following it," she added.

So, what’s next? Gandhi is now the Uber Congress ideologue, no longer a failed politician. Priyanka Gandhi is the party’s chief campaigner, as demonstrated in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, and she will be active in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Will the new Gandhigiri strategy work? As always, it’s the voters of India who will decide.