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