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How Rahul Gandhi is trying to add substance to his style

One can't say how successful will be Rahul's efforts to break out of the image of an immature heir, but he has made a clear beginning with his US speeches.

, ET Online|
Updated: Sep 25, 2017, 05.28 PM IST
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NEW DELHI: Early this year, at a rally during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi put his hand in the torn pocket of his kurta and showed his fingers coming out of the hole. That was his way to convey to his audience how little he cared for the material life. Rahul, or his advisers, thought people would buy into this show of penury despite the talk being his long holidays in foreign countries. Out of total 403, the Congress won just 7 while its stronger alliance partner Samajwadi Party won only 47. Led by an aggressive Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has the knack of connecting with the masses, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 312 seats.

Rahul's rhetoric banks on patronising politics that is past its sell-by date. "The poor can't eat roads," Rahul had said in an interview in 2014, trying to belittle the promise of infrastructure made by BJP. The Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections too. He came to be seen as the biggest reason for the losses of the Congress.

When Rahul was not making goofy speeches in election rallies, he was often on long holidays abroad. These visits were wrapped in mystery. No one got to know exactly where he went and what he did. But that has suddenly changed. His recent visits to a few universities in the US where he spoke to students about India were well-publicised and evoked much commentary. He tried his best to come across as a wise and articulate leader. He did not make too many goof-ups either.

The shift seems to indicate a desire to add substance to style. What better place than an Ivy league university to convey to Indians that Rahul Gandhi is a deep-thinking man with ideas. And what better subject than economy to suggest Rahul knows what needs to be done to make India better.

A major part of Rahul's speeches was about how the economy had gone bad. Maybe he has learnt from Modi that people want to hear more about substantial issues than symbolic ones. When there is a widespread anxiety about the pace of job creation, Rahul made the right noise by bringing that up.

Rahul's major challenge has been an utter lack of gravitas. He is largely seen as a heir who has politics thrust on him. He could not shake off the accusations of being inexperienced and immature. His own goof-ups and his critics branding him as a less-than-intelligent man at best and stupid at worst ensured Rahul was rarely taken seriously in politics.

Rahul did bring that up at the University of California, Berkeley, when he was asked why he was seen as a reluctant politician. “There is a BJP machine…about a thousand guys sitting on computers. They basically tell you things about me. They tell you I am reluctant, I am stupid. They tell you all these things,” he said.

By associating with world's top universities and talking on serious issues, Rahul is trying to wash off the smear of stupidity. His addresses at Ivy League universities where he was seen interacting with the world's best students, fielding their questions with confidence, is a ploy to influence Indian middle-class who is smitten with western education. Remember, one of Modi's first Lok Sabha election campaign appearances was at elite SRCC of Delhi University.

One can't say how successful will be Rahul's efforts to break out of the image of an immature heir, but he has made a clear beginning with his speeches in the US universities.

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