Rahul Gandhi’s journey to the top of the Congress party

By Yash Shukla

From being the butt of jokes by Pappu Pom Pom to becoming a reluctant politician, Rahul Gandhi has started to transform his public image for the better. RaGa is finally coming out from the shadow cast by his mother, Sonia, after her retirement from politics. The latest sign of Rahul’s political maturation is his election as president of the Congress party.

Unexpected scion of a political dynasty

Rahul Gandhi’s upbringing in India’s foremost political dynasty was out of the ordinary. He was born in 1970 to a non-political family, as his father Rajiv had not yet seen himself as the political heir to his mother Indira. Sanjay Gandhi, who was seen as Indira’s heir, died in a tragic plane crash in 1980, one of the many tragedies in the Gandhi family that brought Rahul closer to the centre of India’s political life. Rahul’s educational background was also unusual. He left St Stephen’s College without finishing his degree in the wake of allegations that his admission to the academic school as a sportsman was only granted under political pressure. He then went to the United States to finish his education.

Thus it came as a surprise when Rahul Gandhi announced his entry into politics in 2004 by standing for Amethi, the constituency previously represented by his father. He was then made the National General Secretary of the party. In this position, he was hailed for a turnaround of the fortunes of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. By then, Rahul was seen as a contender for Prime Minister but surprised the country by not taking the job.

Gandhi’s reputation declined with the party’s fortunes

The troubles for Rahul Gandhi started in 2010 when he led the party to defeat in the Bihar assembly election. His leadership style was further brought into question by a second debacle in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, where Congress ended up with its lowest ever tally in the state. Nevertheless, he moved up the party ranks to become the second in command, as vice president. With the ascendance of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s national leader and a succession of defeats inflicted on Congress across the country, Rahul Gandhi presided over his party’s worst-ever performance, winning only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Rahul’s tag as the ‘reluctant leader’ was strengthened by his 56-day sabbatical, just after the party’s defeat in the national elections. The leaders of Congress were hard-pressed to reply to the taunts and jibes of the BJP leadership. Nevertheless, he has often been praised for his efforts to reform the party, in particular, his efforts to establish a more democratic primary system inside the party.

Ongoing challenges for Rahul Gandhi and Congress

The situation in which the Congress party finds itself today is the worst in its history. The party is governing in only a handful of states and its organisational structures are in tatters. Rahul Gandhi has stepped Into this leadership void by presenting himself as a totally transformed personality. Through his intelligent tweets and adroit use of social media, as well as his frontal attacks on the economic policies of the Modi government, he has positioned the party so that it is able to challenge to the formidable BJP duo of Modi and Amit Shah.

Dynastic politics and corruption are the two most lasting charges made against Congress. In particular, the party has always had difficulty defending itself against the charge of dynastic politics, especially now that it is confronted by Narendra Modi who ostensibly left his family to enter politics. As far as corruption is concerned, Congress can only improve its reputation if it works aggressively to question the BJP’s record in states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It also needs to work harder to shed the image of a party which protects its own corrupt leaders.

Rahul has been promoting lessons learned

Rahul Gandhi has learned to respond to the cheap personal attacks made against him and the party by the BJP leadership in a civil and subdued manner. He now appears relaxed and calm in the face of attack, which is leading many people to change their perception of him. Ever since Modi came to power in 2014 Indian’s have been struck by his larger-than-life personality, but with disenchantment now growing against the government, people have started to look for something different. Much remains to be seen ahead of the expected election in 2019, but it seems that voters are increasingly willing to give Rahul Gandhi a second look.

Early this year, NSUI—the student body of the Congress party—lacerated the ABVP—the student body of the BJP—at Delhi University with a protest movement using the slogan “Take DU back”, The ABVP was accused of violence and hooliganism on the campus while the NSUI presented itself as the voice of moderation. The Congress party needs to find a similar slogan at the national level. A campaign based on a call to ‘take back India’ from the clutches of intolerance, communalism and authoritarianism may be the ticket back to power for the party.

After a long period of political troubles, Rahul Gandhi has started to make a lasting positive impression on the minds of voters, as is evident from his fan following on twitter and his recent rallies in Gujarat, which were attended by thousands of people. However, the prospect of a revival of the Congress party is not only in the interest of Rahul Gandhi and his cadres but is also indispensable to the country’s democracy. India needs a check to the unfettered power and excess of the ruling regime and Gandhi appears to have enough fight in him to return his party to this important position.

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