Rahul Gandhi coronation: Has the Nehru-Gandhi scion finally come of age?
If 2014 general election was all about Narendra Modi, the 2019 poll undoubtedly would be an acid-test for Rahul Gandhi, who took over as the Congress president today, weighed by a poor track record of electoral success and swayed by a new optimism among party workers.
The elevation from Vice President's post to the top position of Congress to succeed his mother Sonia Gandhi who held it since 1998, is certainly an exam that son Rahul would like to excel.
Under the formidable shadow of a still visible Modi wave that apparently survived demonetisation and GST induced anger of people, the odds are stacked against Rahul Gandhi who will now steer the country's oldest party, the Congress.
Rahul's elevation offers the 47-year old to realistically evolve from his social media trolled "Pappu" image to a roadblock to the Narendra Modi juggernaut.
Rahul takes over the mantle of Congress but the question that persists is whether his elevation in the party comes really with his evolution though according to many he showed a new political maturity in the entire Gujarat campaign.
Says political analyst Amulya Ganguly: "In the recently concluded Gujarat election, Rahul was apparently mature, sober and more of a 24x7 politician than a part timer. The party may be thinking that this is the best time to elevate him to the Congress President's post."
If one tracks Rahul Gandhi 2014 onwards, the leader provided ample opportunities to the political rivals to project him as a comic relief in Indian politics. Both inside and outside parliament, Rahul took the body blow from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The instances were numerous where the Congress Vice President made mistakes scoring self goals for him and his 132-year old party. Eventually, inviting jibes by the BJP who spared no opportunity to target and troll the grandson of India's most astute Prime Minister that was Indira Gandhi.
Though Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had all assumed the topmost post of the party or became the face of the Congress with three of them becoming the PM, the question of dynasty politics is most vehemently directed towards Rahul.
Is it because the BJP is using a tactic to target the Congress over dynasty rule or the incapability of Rahul makes him a soft target?
According to Ganguly, "BJP sees Rahul now as a serious challenger."
"Earlier, the BJP would call him Pappu to try to cut him down but of late he made the saffron party nervous. The nervousness is because Rahul is now the only leader who can unite other opposition parties and lead the united Opposition."
The BJP's tactic definitely is to use the dynastic rule slur to badger Rahul and Congress to buckle, as Narendra Modi during his campaigns in 2014 repeatedly referred the UPA II as "Ma-batein ki sarkar" (the government run by mother-son duo).
However, a change in Rahul can be sensed with the Gujarat campaign, when Rahul, who was once called by several political leader as "part-time leader", evolved as a 24x7 politician like Modi, Mamata or a Nitish Kumar. Time will tell though if this trend will continue or the "reluctant prince" of Indian politics go back to his old self of detachment.
On Nov 29, senior journalist Sagarika Ghose, tweeted: "Win or lose, we see a new @OfficeOfRG on campaign trail. No helicopter drops, or sudden disappearances. Walking, on bailgadi, interacting with locals, mandir vists. Has the boy transitioned to man? And has he learnt from @narendramodi & @MamataOfficial on how to be a 24*7 neta?"
Win or lose, we see a new @OfficeOfRG on campaign trail. No helicopter drops, or sudden disappearances. Walking, on bailgadi, interacting with locals, mandir vists. Has the boy transitioned to man? And has he learnt from @narendramodi & @MamataOfficial on how to be a 24*7 neta?— Sagarika Ghose (@sagarikaghose) November 30, 2017
Says Ganguly: "I think Rahul is now a fully professional politician, unlike earlier times when he was in and out of active role. The Gujarat poll campaign shows Rahul in a different light."
If we go back to the early days of Narendra Modi government, we can find a Rahul of bloomers.
It was in the Lok Sabha, in front of the angry tides from the ruling BJP, Rahul was heard calling "Speaker ma'am" instead of "Chairman Sir".
As a leader of the Congress, Rahul would make mistakes in his speeches in the House many times, to later regret it or apologize. During a speech in the Parliament, Rahul referred to the diesel price as Rs. 35/barrel instead of 35 dollar/barrel which he meant as a lower price than the UPA government when the price was 130$/barrel.
The electoral performance of Rahul since the time he became the Congress Vice President has not been something he would be eager to remember or recall. If 2014 General Election was a setback to Rahul's young political career, the successive defeats in state elections and inability to recover in the next few years were nothing but the last nails in the coffin.
Between 2014 and 2017, though the Congress President was Sonia Gandhi, the party tried to project Rahul Gandhi as their main campaigner and the face for an alternative to the current BJP regime at the Centre or the states.
While Delhi, Assam, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh were the states where the Congress failed to capture power, Bihar and Punjab just managed to salvage the humiliation further.
If Delhi Assembly election, where the Congress failed to open their account in front of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wave, the Uttar Pradesh poll turned the party literally to a joke as Rahul's leadership along with the Samajwadi Party was swamped by the saffron surge.
In Goa, Manipur too, Rahul failed to get support from smaller parties to form the government despite being the single largest party. The sweeping victory in Punjab was the only room where he breathed comfortably.
But the turnaround seemed to have come much later, after the UP election, particularly when the Gujarat poll was whistled.
Meanwhile, Rahul's Twitter handle, which is known as "Office Of RG", gained popularity and had hit the headlines with huge number of re-tweets though later the BJP alleged that the re-tweets were done by some fake accounts.
His activities on Twitter have also been noticed to be much different of late. There have been innumerable times Rahul had the been trolled but for very few time he could manage to give it back.
One of the recent incidents where the Congress Vice President turned his own fault into a mere opportunity to take a jibe at the Prime Minister was when he miscalculated the inflation rates during the BJP rule. He released a table on Twitter where the inflation rate was doubled roughly.
Though he deleted the tweet soon, Rahul re-added the post saying that he does commit mistakes unlike Modi, hitting out at the saffron party and its demonetisation gamble.
For all my BJP friends: unlike Narendrabhai, I am human. We do make the odd mistake and that’s what makes life interesting. Thanks for pointing it out and please do keep it coming, it really helps me improve. Love you all.— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) December 6, 2017
Tactically, Rahul too excelled in the Gujarat campaigns. He visited several temples in Gujarat, hitting the big headlines in the campaign months.
As religion turns out to be a big issue in the Indian elections, Rahul did not want to lose the opportunity to cash in by visiting the temples. He also landed in a controversy after the BJP alleged that he signed in the visitors' register as a Christian while entering the Somnath Temple.
The relentless campaigning was one of the USPs of Narendra Modi but Rahul Gandhi too seems to have learnt the skill as the race to Gujarat poll kicked in. From social media to roadshows, every Modi move was matched by a move by Rahul.
Rahul had also tried to project a fair image of his party by suspending senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for the latter's "derogatory remarks [neech or low born]" against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Though Aiyar's apology and suspension was cited as a "match fix" by the BJP, Rahul undoubtedly attempted to develop a better image of the Congress.
This is further substantiated by the Congress VP's comment in several rallies next few days where he said he won't allow the Congress to speak ill about the PM though the latter attempts to tarnish the image of the country's oldest party.
The Gujarat poll has ended and the mandate is sealed with the exit polls predicting a BJP win, but Rahul's unprecedented three-month long campaign certainly caught the limelight.
If the Congress does better in Gujarat, Rahul's capabilities might again be challenged but this time round the opinions on him are much more charitable.
"I don't think Rahul will suffer if the BJP fails to get 150 seats in Gujarat [what they have claimed before the poll] or the vote percentage of the Congress improves. Nobody expected BJP to lose in Gujarat. Gujarat will show that Rahul made an impact."
Images: INC FB