Milind De­ora, Congress leader and one of Rahul Gandhi’s close aides, de­codes his tran­si­tion

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Did Rahul Gandhi’s tran­si­tion hap­pen post his UC Berke­ley speech?

The US visit in Septem­ber was planned around his speech at UC Berke­ley. Why it hap­pened in the first place was be­cause I had addressed the UC Berke­ley in 2015. I found out that Pt Nehru had addressed the Uni­ver­sity in 1949. It is the epi­cen­tre of lib­eral and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics the world over. So, I re­quested the fac­ulty to in­vite Rahul Gandhi, and he was happy about it. How­ever, it was not planned to rein­car­nate him or change his per­cep­tion among peo­ple. But, I do agree that it did have an ef­fect. What hap­pened over there was, they pro­vided him with a more un­bi­ased prism through which he could com­mu­ni­cate his views. In In­dia, the news me­dia is ei­ther afraid, or tends to bend back­ward for the gov­ern­ment. The news me­dia here is a bi­ased one. No mes­sage gets across ac­cu­rately, it is dis­torted, or pulled out of con­text. Then, there is the so­cial me­dia, with its trolls and memes. So, my in­ten­tion of this trip was to pro­vide him an un­bi­ased platform. The change of per­cep­tion came about be­cause it wasn’t an edited, dis­torted ver­sion of what he was say­ing. It was what he had been say­ing all along.

Is Rahul Gandhi flaunt­ing a new­found con­fi­dence?

I won’t call it a new­found con­fi­dence. He has al­ways been very clear and cat­e­gor­i­cal about say­ing what he be­lieves in. But, cer­tainly, his im­age and the party’s mes­sage is gain­ing trac­tion ever since the speech. Maybe, to a cer­tain ex­tent, I can take credit for the fact that the US visit catal­ysed that. But, I don’t think it changed his/our con­fi­dence, or our mes­sage. It has al­ways been the same. But now, peo­ple are start­ing to be­lieve in what he is say­ing. They are prob­a­bly think­ing that what we have heard about him is prob­a­bly not true. The pub­lic is now cu­ri­ous and won­der­ing why it was be­ing told some­thing else about him.

Now that he has taken over as the Party Pres­i­dent, what will change?

He has al­ways been an in­flu­en­tial leader in the party, as a vice pres­i­dent, when his mother was the pres­i­dent, and even when he was an or­di­nary MP. But, the new po­si­tion will put him in the driver’s seat. He will have to take on re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and the po­si­tion will em­power him to take de­ci­sions, make the changes and be ac­count­able for them. Now, he will solely be re­spon­si­ble for the party’s de­ci­sions and what hap­pens with them.

Why did it take the Congress so long to make him the Pres­i­dent?

The prob­lem in the dis­course of the Congress party is if you do it soon, you have done it un­demo­crat­i­cally, if you do it af­ter fol­low­ing a trans­par­ent elec­tion process in ev­ery state, ev­ery taluka, ev­ery ward where

Congress has a pres­ence, that is an is­sue too. Now, we are be­ing ac­cused of do­ing it slowly. Sim­i­larly, peo­ple would say the Congress should just ap­point some­one as the PM while they ran the or­gan­i­sa­tion, but when we did that, we were ac­cused of re­mote con­trol. It is like you are damned if you are right, damned if you are wrong. There is no tim­ing for such things.

What ef­fect will Rahul’s sud­den pop­u­lar­ity have in the com­ing state elec­tions?

Can’t re­ally pre­dict elec­tion out­comes. I never get into it. It’s very ar­ro­gant for any­one to say they are go­ing to win the elec­tions. I think there is a very strong op­por­tu­nity. Un­for­tu­nately for the BJP, the Gu­jarat model, which was pro­moted as a very im­por­tant model of econ­omy, growth, so­cial sec­tor and in­fra­struc­ture, is be­ing se­verely chal­lenged now. With Hardik Pa­tel, it has come to light that there are ma­jor so­cial ten­sions in Gu­jarat, which ac­tu­ally go be­yond re­li­gion. So, Gu­jarat, un­der the BJP, seems to have cre­ated more eco­nomic and so­cial ten­sions rather than al­le­vi­ate them. And, both are man­i­fest­ing them­selves in pub­lic. Whether it will man­i­fest it­self elec­torally re­mains to be seen. But, the model is un­der se­ri­ous threat. Look at de­moni­ti­sa­tion —in hind­sight, with more and more data com­ing from the RBI, it has been an eco­nomic dis­as­ter. That has hurt the small and medium en­ter­prises the most. Gu­jarat is re­ally the epi­cen­tre of such en­ter­prises. So, it re­mains to be seen how they will re­act in the elec­tions.

Will vic­tory in the states be a morale booster for the party?

It will def­i­nitely help winning the state elec­tions. But, gen­eral elec­tions are dif­fer­ent from state elec­tions. In­dia has proved time and again that par­ties that win the state elec­tions lose the gen­eral elec­tion and vice versa. But, of course, vic­to­ries in states def­i­nitely create mo­men­tum, and that ex­cites the cadres, and vot­ers re­spond and re­act dif­fer­ently.

Do you per­ceive Rahul as a fu­ture Prime Min­is­ter?

I think Rahul’s big­gest strength is that he has al­ways be­lieved that ideas and ide­olo­gies in pol­i­tics must pre­cede per­son­al­i­ties and per­sona. So, he is al­ways in­vested more in ideas like Aad­haar, an idea which is lib­eral and in­clu­sive, much more than he has in­vested in per­son­al­i­ties. I think, right now, the coun­try and the world is in a phase when we are elect­ing per­sonas rather than ideas and ide­olo­gies. Be it In­dia or the US. These are trends—they af­fect pol­i­tics, busi­ness, and con­sump­tion. The trend will def­i­nitely change. When peo­ple start feel­ing that they are fa­tigued by the per­sona, find him te­dious and start look­ing for merit in an ide­ol­ogy, then they will choose dif­fer­ently. How­ever, if your ide­ol­ogy is good, a politi­cian has to in­vest in the per­sona as well. We re­alise that, and we also tell Rahul that. He has started to do that. The US was per­haps the turn­ing point. But, he will never com­pro­mise on what he stands for and what the party stands for. It will take prece­dence over how hip he is, or how many self­ies he takes. That is a dif­fer­ent style of lead­er­ship and func­tion­ing. I per­son­ally feel that only talk­ing about per­sona and per­son­al­ity is not enough. Like, the present gov­ern­ment al­ways talks about de­ci­sive­ness. The PM al­ways says he is a de­ci­sive leader. I agree it is true, but for a leader, far more im­por­tant is what is the de­ci­sion. The de­cep­tion in the elec­tion cam­paign is to fool the voter into think­ing de­ci­sive­ness is more im­por­tant than the de­ci­sion it­self.

Do you think Rahul has what it needs to take on Modi?

I per­son­ally feel he cer­tainly has the en­durance, the depth and the un­der­stand­ing. He has a far bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of In­dia’s chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties than most peo­ple I have met. He has grown up in a po­lit­i­cal fam­ily. Of course, the area where the party and he need to work is to com­mu­ni­cate those tal­ents and skills more ef­fec­tively. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is im­por­tant, we can’t dis­miss it. It is as im­por­tant as sim­ply hav­ing knowl­edge, sub­stance and ideas. But, it can’t pre­cede these fac­tors. Cre­ative peo­ple—writ­ers, film­mak­ers, etc, who were sup­port­ers of Modi, I find them op­posed to him now. They feel the gov­ern­ment has wiped off the lib­eral ethos of In­dia along with their free­dom to ex­press. Whether we are ef­fec­tive in com­mu­ni­cat­ing or not, peo­ple know that when we were in power, noth­ing of this sort was hap­pen­ing.

po­lit­i­cal fam­ily and the party—whether he de­serves it or not. Mean­while, to go back a lit­tle in time, the Gandhi fam­ily heir en­tered the po­lit­i­cal arena in 2004 when he con­tested from Ame­thi, Ut­tar Pradesh, a Lok Sabha con­stituency that had been held by his fam­ily for years. The Congress was los­ing its ground in Ut­tar Pradesh at that time. And, the an­nounce­ment by Rahul gave rise to scep­ti­cism amongst the Congress sup­port­ers who were hop­ing that his sis­ter, Priyanka Vadra, the more charis­matic and sharper of the two sib­lings, would take over the fam­ily’s po­lit­i­cal man­tle. How­ever, Rahul won the elec­tions with a mar­gin of over 100,000, much to the re­lief of his party peo­ple. Rahul and Priyanka worked tire­lessly for their mother’s cam­paign for re-elec­tion to Rae Bareilly in 2006. The ef­fort bore fruit when she won with a mar­gin of 400,000 votes. In the 2007 UP as­sem­bly elec­tions, how­ever, the Congress took a huge beat­ing, winning only 22 out of the 403 seats. In the same year, Rahul was elected as the Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of the Congress Party as the veter­ans ex­pected him to play a more se­ri­ous role in pol­i­tics. He went on to be elected as the Vice Pres­i­dent of the party in 2013. The gen­eral elec­tion that fol­lowed soon af­ter in 2014, which saw Rahul cam­paign for the Congress, was a rude jolt to the en­tire party, hav­ing been wiped out by the storm called Naren­dra Modi. Rahul got trolled more and more as he con­tin­ued to make gaffes af­ter gaffes when he wasn’t tak­ing off unannounce­d to undis­closed lo­ca­tions for so-called breaks. If any­one thought he was a re­luc­tant politi­cian, he was only feed­ing the spec­u­la­tion fur­ther by his ac­tions, which were be­ing per­ceived as ir­re­spon­si­ble and care­less. In a sud­den volte face, how­ever, Rahul Gandhi managed to shut his crit­ics up when he gave a stir­ring speech at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley in the US

re­cently. He seemed poised, mature, his words were mea­sured, and he also managed to be hard hit­ting when he spoke about the gov­ern­ment in power and the prob­lems that ailed our coun­try, what he called in­tol­er­ance and the pol­i­tics of vi­o­lence and po­lar­i­sa­tion. He even eq­ui­tably pointed out to the flaws within his own party. It was the pro­jec­tion of a to­tally new per­sona— charm­ing, sen­si­ble, un­bi­ased, in­volved and well-in­formed, witty and funny even—some­thing that per­haps the coun­try al­ways ex­pected of him. While ap­pre­ci­a­tion has been pour­ing in from all quarters, peo­ple, even his naysay­ers, are now talk­ing about a pos­si­ble rein­car­na­tion of Rahul Gandhi, who, for the first time, ap­pears as the wor­thy scion of the Gandhi fam­ily. Not sur­pris­ingly, this rein­ven­tion of Rahul Gandhi has sent jit­ters down the BJP camp, what with the im­pend­ing state elec­tions, in­clud­ing, and es­pe­cially, Gu­jarat, a Modi strong­hold. Rahul has been cam­paign­ing in full force with tit-for-tat tac­tics and seems to be en­joy­ing it for once, while woo­ing the crowds in his own dis­arm­ing way. And, sud­denly, the crowd seems to be un­der­stand­ing his lan­guage, the points he is mak­ing, his rhetoric and his hu­mour. The pub­lic seems to be lap­ping up his new vigour and drive. Peo­ple are openly con­grat­u­lat­ing Rahul for his new, con­fi­dent avatar. In fact, Shashi Tha­roor, in an ar­ti­cle in The Week magazine, an­a­lysed the phe­nom­e­non. He says, in his piece, ‘…the re­nais­sance of Rahul Gandhi ac­tu­ally started a cou­ple of years ear­lier, upon his re­turn from a vipas­sana sab­bat­i­cal in 2015. I re­mem­ber how at that time RG hit the ground run­ning. The morn­ing af­ter his ar­rival in Delhi, he addressed a kisan rally. Within days, he was show­ing a pen­chant for quick-wit­ted ex­tem­pore in­ter­ven­tions in Par­lia­ment that many had judged him in­ca­pable of.’ He con­tin­ued to say that ‘in mod­ern pol­i­tics, a leader needs a pub­lic ap­proach, con­spic­u­ous vis­i­bil­ity and a per­sona that is seen as ac­ces­si­ble by the vot­ers… This is what the new RG is achiev­ing…’ Now, with Rahul Gandhi’s coro­na­tion as the Pres­i­dent of the Congress party, can we see a fur­ther rise in buoy­ancy and self-as­sur­ance? Per­haps, it is time Modi had an equiv­a­lent op­po­nent.

Priyanka Vadra

So­nia Gandhi

Naren­dra Modi

Shashi Tha­roor

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