Rahul Gandhi 3.0 Can Tweet
The worm finally turns. After being the butt of many of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most stinging barbs, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has finally stopped turning the other cheek. At least on Twitter.
He has rechristened the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as the ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’. The economic slowdown was dubbed ‘MMD’, or ‘Modi-Made Disaster’. Modi might still be the king of acronyms, but Gandhi has certainly drawn some acronym blood.
For years, Gandhi has largely toggled between two states – AWOL and Deathly Earnest. He specialised in projecting a monochromatic kind of Doordarshan dull while politics had moved into a Technicolour world of 24x7 cable fervour. This newer ‘May the Farce be with you’ Rahul Gandhi seems to finally be having some fun in politics. That is a much more appealing persona than the reluctant schoolboy weighed down by his homework.
His latest video features Pidi, his dog. “People have been asking who tweets for this guy [Rahul]. I am coming clean… it’s me... Pidi... I am way cooler than him.” Ex-Congressman and now BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma responded sourly saying he quit the Congress because he was insulted that Gandhi was more apparently interested in feeding biscuits to his dog than in discussing Assam’s problems with him. Perhaps so. But it does show that you can teach an old dog a few new tricks.
It’s quite a role reversal – a fingerwagging dour BJP and a wise-cracking sly Gandhi who is not afraid of a bit of self-deprecation. As Omar Abdullah tweeted “Anyone can make fun of others, so it’s refreshing to have national leaders who aren’t afraid to be funny at their own expense.” It’s doubly refreshing to see Gandhi cheerfully playing second fiddle to his dog at a time when a dog Snapchat filter on the august person of the PM resulted in an FIR being registered. The BJP is obviously annoyed, espe
cially since Gandhi is steal- ing from its own book. Social media has been the ruling party’s forte. A phalanx of the BJP’s big guns, from Arun Jaitley to Amit Shah, have trained artillery fire on Gandhi, inadvertently giving him a charismaboost. Not so long ago, he was routinely dismissed as the ‘young leader’ just learning to give speeches. Now purported BJP allies, Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena and Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (Athawale) have issued character cer- tificates for Gandhi’s newly acquired leadership qualities. “He is not ‘Pappu’ anymore,” said Athawale. “He looks confident.” Or, at least, Pappu can tweet.
But the Congress should not get too excited about the reinvention of Rahul Gandhi. A tweet, even a viral one, doth not a revolution make. As a young leader, he should have been at the forefront of social media. Instead it is older leaders like Modi — and Donald Trump — who were able to harness its power and undercut mainstream media.
Reports have it that Gandhi was lukewarm to the idea of social media because he saw it as the playground of the ‘suited-booted’ class, the middleclass with smartphones. That he’s woken up to its potential is good news for the Congress. But it’s still about playing catch-up.
Gandhi’s follower count has gone from 2.49 million in July to over 4 million -- still a far cry from Modi’s 36 million. Some observers have said that it’s not Gandhi who has changed as much as the country, which is losing its taste for Modi’s acronym-soup of promises. The success of Gandhi’s US tour provoked an angry backlash from the BJP, which in turn helped everyone take Gandhi a little more seriously. The danger for the Congress now is to read too much into the new and improved Rahul Gandhi. Social media can go viral, but it is still virtual. There’s no proof that the party’s fortunes have changed on the ground. If the public is skeptical of Modi’s spin, it’s even more skeptical of the staying power of Gandhi’s prowess. Gandhi may communicate well in a university in California, but he’s not running for office there.
Without a grassroots organisation and follow-up, it can translate into little by way of gains on the ground. The Congress, as a party, has failed to rally the Opposition parties even on an issue as contentious as demonetisation. Whereas once it was guilty of underestimating the power of social media, it could overhype it now as the Second Coming of Rahul the Messiah. Social media is the means. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking of it as the end.
In the end, engagement will be measured by votes, not retweets.