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Reluctant politician Rahul Gandhi mounts a quiet turnaround

Gandhi has sparred aggressively with the prime minister on Twitter and in public speeches.

Bloomberg|
May 18, 2019, 10.35 AM IST
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Rahul's lack of experience and his familial connections have been a point of contention for many voters, who want India to shift away from what they view as dynastic rule.
by Bibhudatta Pradhan and Abhijit Roy Chowdhury

Five years ago, Rahul Gandhi, scion of one of the world’s most famous political dynasties, stood with his mother by his side, trying to explain why his Indian National Congress had suffered the worst defeat in its history.

Rival BJP had won a landslide and crowned Narendra Modi prime minister. For much of India’s 2014 elections, political rivals had mockingly referred to Gandhi as ‘pappu,’ a name used for young bumblers, attempting to cast him as an ineffectual amateur.

But a string of wins in state elections in recent months have helped transform the Congress into a resurgent party from a seemingly irrelevant outfit. Meanwhile, a new populist manifesto that promises to pay poor families about $1,000 annually is likely to boost the party’s standing with low-income voters. All that’s helped Gandhi put himself in a better position to stage an upset, turning this year’s election into a tighter-than-expected contest.

Stock market valuations appear to suggest that investors are pricing in a win for the BJP and its partners, according to Gautam Chhaochharia, head of India research, at UBS AG. But the country’s voters are notoriously unpredictable and markets have pulled back in recent weeks amid jitters that the BJP might not perform as well as expected or that the elections might produce a shaky coalition in New Delhi.

Gandhi, meanwhile, has sought to gain momentum in recent months by sparring more aggressively with the prime minister on Twitter and in public speeches. That’s helped him shed the image of reluctant politician and instead play the role of a more vociferous opposition leader.

"My job was to put across to the nation what Mr. Narendra Modi has done, has not done, his failures," Gandhi said in a recent interview with BloombergQuint. "I think we did a reasonably good job."

Gandhi has publicly said that if his Congress emerges as the biggest party, or is able to get the backing of allies, he would take on the role of prime minister. But many regional parties are yet to say who they would support, and he’s still dogged by questions about his lack of experience.

His family has dominated Congress and Indian politics since India’s freedom from British rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great-grandfather and an independence movement hero, was the country’s first prime minister. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv, Rahul’s father. Both were assassinated, Indira while still in office, sparking comparisons with the Kennedy family.

Rahul Gandhi’s mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, rose reluctantly to head the Congress for nearly two decades and led the party back to power in the 2004 election. His younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, was named the party’s general secretary in January.

The Cambridge University-educated Gandhi, who is a bachelor, has never held any government post. His lack of experience and his familial connections have been a point of contention for many voters, who want India to shift away from what they view as dynastic rule.

But in recent months, things have looked up for him as the Congress unseated the BJP in Karnataka in 2018 by forging an alliance with a regional party. It also wrested power from BJP in three key states in December 2018.

After taking the reins as president of the Congress in 2017, Gandhi, built his own team and attempted to change the party’s culture. He encouraged regional leaders to take more decisions, and attempted to act as a bridge between between restless youth leaders and the old guard. He’s also hired campaign strategists, collected data for better planning and used a social and digital media team to boost his image as well as the party’s.

On a personal level, Gandhi has focused on exercise, meditation and spirituality, said Karan Singh, 88, a former federal minister, who has been a mentor to Gandhi.

“It is fascinating to see how he has matured, how his self-confidence came into force," said Singh. "He now knows how to work with the system and how to articulate, to say, what he means."

Still, Gandhi’s benefiting in large part from recent missteps by the Modi administration. The BJP has been hurt by the fallouts of a 2016 cash ban that affected the livelihood of unorganized workers, as well as chaotic implementation of nationwide sales tax that hampered small businesses.

While he’s transformed himself to lead the Congress, Gandhi may still lack a "killer instinct" to grab power, said Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“Gandhi’s confidence appears to have strengthened in recent years, and he’ll get an even bigger boost if his party has a strong showing in the polls,’’ said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Yet despite the improvement “sometimes one gets the impression that he’s not comfortable with being the scion of a political dynasty, and that he participates in politics not because he wants to but because he has to,’’ Kugelman said.

Modi and the BJP haven’t been shy about hitting back. The prime minister during election rallies has asked voters to choose between an "honest watchman" and a "corrupt dynasty."

Gandhi, in turn, has painted the BJP as a party that favors the business elite over the poor. His manifesto, which promises to waive farm loans, introduce a single sales tax and reserve a third of government jobs for women, is expected to be popular in rural areas. But economists have argued that implementing it would be a fiscal strain.

“His combativeness is evident,’’ Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Ashoka University said of Gandhi. "But his maturity will be tested."

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