Rahul Gandhi embodies a persona that suggests plurality, however imperfect, is imaginable today. But can he convert it into a more forceful idealism?
For a while, after years of disdain, surprising numbers of people were all “I’m lovin’ it” when it came to Rahul Gandhi. They shared images from the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Instagram videos where university students asked Gandhi about his skin-care regimen (“I never use soap on my face”), vegetable preferences (“sab chalta hai”, everything goes except spinach, peas and karela), and matrimony (“I’m married to my job”).
As late as the morning of December 3, someone WhatsApped me a video of a charming exchange between Gandhi and a young woman translator on stage in Kerala. She is earnest, but nervous, and falters at one moment. Gandhi patiently encourages her. At the end he praises her, then asks her to translate the praise. She does so, exhilarated and also, blushing.
It was undoubtedly a beautiful and rare moment in our public life, both kind and egalitarian, not stern or patronising. It also invoked Gandhi’s serial comedic adventures with translation during his speeches. There had been the translator who kept forgetting to translate, gazing absent-mindedly into the distance, while Gandhi looked on flummoxed. Another one who seemed to be giving his own parallel speech. And a third who asked Gandhi to repeat every line, with the escalating absurdity of a Chaplin film. These moments added to the good-natured aura that began to gather around Gandhi’s figure in 2023. This was no small thing. A man who had been dismissed with the slur “Pappu” by the right-wing and eye-rolling sighs by left-liberals had in one short year converted his image into one of easy-going confidence, with a developing mythology of spontaneity, connection, and open-heartedness.
By that evening of December 3, it became clear that the Congress had lost the Assembly elections in three major northern States. Messages were no longer dewy-eyed. “I am so angry with Rahul!” “He’s a nice person, but no leader.”
Failure has a stench that repels people. Like many, I had liked the Gandhi that was coming into view, although uncertain about victory for the Congress, despite exit polls and the buoyant success of Karnataka. And yet the failure filled me with doubt, so much that I struggled to write this essay, even several days later. Because it is not only the stench of failure that unsteadies us. We live in totalitarian times. And the totalitarianism of the right has an inexorable weight that makes domination seem like an inevitability, the only true and meaningful form of power. It surrounds us with a domineering masculinity that mocks everything else as effete and delusional. Anything else that seemed to matter for a moment is scattered to a scorching wind of self-doubt.
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This is relentlessly reinforced through a culture of bullying. From the troll armies of the IT cell and the baying anchors of television news, to the increasing violence against Bahujan communities and hard-edged dismissal of even small feminist asks like menstrual leave.
Recent mainstream cinema has increasingly reckoned with masculinity, detecting it is an area where a subterranean cultural churn is in progress. If one must find a totem of this phenomenon, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s recent film Animal, obsessed with blood—menstrual and otherwise—and phalluses, offers itself unreservedly. A libidinal rendition of masculinity as wounded, howling, surging with anxieties of emasculation, insignificance and sexual doom, roiling with rage, it presents violence as a totalising expression, but also as response to all this. The raging success of the film points to a psychic recognition by the public, making it a true artefact of our times, both faithful and fateful. Its running themes of reproduction, doubles, twins, mirror images and male seed run amok, compelling us to inhabit the mind of men in the fatherland—paranoid, competitive and fixated on each other.
“A man who had been dismissed with the slur “Pappu” by the right-wing and eye-rolling sighs by left-liberals had in one short year converted his image into one of easy-going confidence, with a developing mythology of spontaneity, connection, and open-heartedness.”
Intertwined with its bed-fellow hypercapitalism, this hypermasculinity insists on a kind of nihilistic rationalism as common sense. Only scale, size and hierarchy determine value. In order to propagate itself, every idea must be reduced to a single meaning, a kind of brand identity which it must endlessly and cyclically play out. Only this can allow it to be recognised as meaningful by the algorithm of our times. Hence Hindu-ness is only Hindutva, democracy is only votes, and politics is only elections. There are no losers. Only winners who will annihilate all else.
In this landscape, what does it mean to be a loser who won’t go away?
Rahul Gandhi has inhabited that role for some time now. And, as he has done so, he has grown into a more defined counter-masculine figure, which, unexpectedly and perhaps intuitively, challenges this script of a hegemonic hypermasculinity.
In 2022, Gandhi casually stepped away from the bullying binary that defined his presence, one in which he was always responding to the right-wing’s mockery of him as a “pappu”. He undertook the Bharat Jodo Yatra, traversing the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir—south to north, not the other way around, on foot. At the time it seemed a rather quaint idea, of a piece with Gandhi’s occasional weirdness. But its potency lay in daring to step out of the political narrative of point scoring which is sold as the only form of visibility (to politicians and social media commentariat alike). It was a counter-intuitive decision to drop out of that algorithmic binary so to speak, where all political meanings are pre-set.
As Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph, “The hallmark of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is its duration. You can ignore it for weeks on end and then it comes into view again. Test matches wind to a close, Delhi’s pollution peaks and eases, bloody, attritional battles in Ukraine end in stalemate and then, in some newspaper photo on an inside page or a hostile tweet chorused out by the sangh’s troll army, you catch a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi on the road, still walking.” As he walked, Gandhi challenged the contemporary common sense about political significance being vested in winning and losing.
Tapping into history
Walking and walking, without any overt agenda, his beard growing, his body language changing, Gandhi tapped into histories linked to the land—Mahatma Gandhi’s initial Bharat Yatra in the 1920s, the Dandi march, Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan yatra, pilgrimages and parikramas woven into Indian cultural memory.
Reflecting on the yatra, Gandhi used the potent word “tapasya”—the suffering of penance. He spoke of its humbling effects, the patience it teaches you and the learning and empathy it opens up in you. Videos of the yatra evoked a very different masculinity. It was not a towering, celibate, authoritarian masculinity demanding obeisance. It was an open, smiling masculinity of hugs and sweetness. There was a spirit of comradeship and togetherness. There was a quality of personal quest, without grand promises, a search that was resilient in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability. It made a proposition: if NaMo is a chant—forceful, impactful, homogenising—then RaGa is a music, that develops slowly through connection, accruing meaning as it builds. As Gandhi walked, the yatra began to generate unscripted meanings.
Even as mainstream media blanked it out, diverse people began to join the yatra and document it on social media. Their accounts emanated replenishment at connecting with sincerity and hope and relief that plurality, however imperfect, was imaginable in a time of insistent monoculture.
In a 2022 interview at Cambridge, shortly before the yatra, the scholar Shruti Kapila asked Gandhi a question about violence in which a political figure is implicated, the kind which led to the death of his father, Rajiv Gandhi. After a lengthy, even emotional silence, Gandhi responded with one word: “Forgiveness.” Where masculinity is increasingly defined as a state of permanent resentment, an insatiable vengefulness for imagined humiliations, it was a brave utterance, because it has so little purchase. It was a glimpse of a viewpoint that seemed to acquire the strength of a vision during the yatra.
Disqualification from Parliament
What does it mean to be a loser? Janis Joplin sang, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”, and it could have been the soundtrack for Gandhi when he was disqualified from Parliament in March 2023. He acquired an almost merry air verging on the rakish, defying the idea that only winners can matter, which made those in power seem petulant and petty. It was an exuberance, quite different from the exultations of victory, and it attracted visible affection. The approval sustained and grew with Gandhi’s compassionate visit to Manipur at a time when the Prime Minister had ignored its suffering and violence. The entry of Kharge and the success of the Karnataka election imparted a sense of politics that was pragmatic but also cooperative, which was repeated in Telangana.
Gandhi’s counter-masculinity is significant because it is not isolated, but occurs in tandem with a larger churning of masculinity in society. Where there is the orgiastic response to Animal, there is also the fervent devotion to a resurgent Shah Rukh Khan and the film Pathaan. Khan’s superstardom seemed to be passing with a series of lukewarm releases in the years preceding the pandemic. The arrest of his son Aryan Khan in 2021, imagined by the right wing as a climactic attack in the battle being staged against nepotistic, liberal Bollywood, that too on a Muslim figure, had an unscripted impact. It created an upswell of love, bringing into visibility a public different from the right-wing mob. It revived the possibility of a popular figure not totally subsumed by either left or right, but one joined in a direct relationship of love and identification, with a heterogenous following.
Pathaan’s unprecedented success, accompanied by liberatory scenes of dancing and pleasure, was borne aloft as much by the memory of Khan’s unfair persecution as by the sense of tapasya or penance that Khan emanated when not in a position of power. Pathaan drew on the memory of older Bollywood nationalist cinema, reactivating a more inclusive frame of Indianness, evading the binary of “nationalist” and “anti-nationalist”. It conveyed a permeable politics of affection and wryness, through a self-deprecating counter-masculinity in which “mard ko dard hota hai”, wounds do heal with love and Crocin, and forgiveness is enabling.
Khan’s next film, Jawan, extended this narrative, its protagonist raised amid women and many friends, in a continuous state of cooperation. The film resurrected the outmoded figure of the politician-villain and invoked a more welfarist state as it drew on real-life stories of government persecution of those who provide care, such as Dr Kafeel Khan. Not to overstate too little, it is intriguing how popular cinema features so much north-south collaboration.
Culture is a lucid dream, rousing buried memories, illuminating dormant yearnings. The sustained response to both the violent masculinities that undergird the right wing, or a film like Animal, and to films like Pathaan and Jawan, the approval for Uddhav Thackeray for his very care-driven stint as Chief Minister of Maharashtra during the pandemic, and the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra reflect churning masculinities on the one hand. But these are also a churn in cultural imagination of power, even as gender, sexuality and caste undergo a sea change of expressions and equations.
The variegated publics that surface with these cinematic or political events tell us this churn is not as lopsided as the establishment would have us believe, Rather, all possibilities—of the homogenous, traditional masculine state, and a heterogenous cooperative Indianness—remain in the mix. This parallels the political commentary of Asim Ali and Roshan Kishore, among others, who all say that irrespective of electoral results, vote shares reveal an ideological diversity in the public.
That is all very well, goes one type of flat, if fair response. What is the point of it all if it does not win elections. “Can Rahul Gandhi be fixed?” asked one NRI commentator, disparaging Gandhi’s love of bookish intellectuals as somewhat effete. That too is a small, follow-on iteration of masculinity in the mix—the self-hating, bookish, bhadralok intellectual who thrills to the brute decisiveness of the criminal and the gritty. The films of Anurag Kashyap, beloved of liberals, have also been expressions of this kind of edge-lord masculinity. In other words, what does it even mean to be a loser?
“As he walked, Gandhi challenged the contemporary common sense about political significance being vested in winning and losing. Walking and walking, without any overt agenda, his beard growing, his body language changing, Gandhi tapped into histories linked to the land. ”
While some might see this as a denigrating rhetorical question, at a time when losing equals obliteration, this question is actually a generative, even exciting one. Gandhi may seek a definition of politics outside the current paradigm, but must it not finally crystallise into an electorally convincing vision, powerful enough to resonate with multitudes and organised enough to render its vision into the systematic, co-operative political structure it lays claim to?
It is here that Rahul Gandhi represents the most riddling challenge of all. It is a challenge both of and to the liberal imagination itself, which is very broadly represented by the Congress. This imagination remains embedded in a reality long past, in denial of its lost centraliity, unable to re-examine its meanings and positions in a world that has changed dramatically since the Congress began to come undone thirty years ago, ushering in the rise of the BJP.
Liberal elites imagine their ideas as a default setting for justice, rationality, and even goodness. This makes them slow to interrogate the nature of their privilege. That is, of course, a privilege of class and caste. But it is also a kind of inherited moral privilege, with a posture of caring about justice, not power or primacy, as if the two are contradictory. The veneer wears thin every now and then.
For instance, the defeat of the Congress in recent Assembly elections elicited comments about how only States with low literacy and high fertility did not vote Congress. There is an ingrained snobbery and casteism here—a political clubbiness if you will. It can be aired unreflexively only because such liberalism is merely defined in the negative as being “anti-BJP”. It is always someone else who is under its moral scanner, not itself. And it homogenises the meaning of power as an insatiable appetite for control—where liberal tastes are apparently more delicate and refined—thus endorsing the dominant narrative, rather than disrupting it with a different idea of power.
What lurks beneath is the fantasy of being restored to an entitled centrality when the wrongs of the right are revealed. This besets the Congress party itself, which is similarly full of watery old tricks of feudal masculinity, constantly deluding itself that the job is done with every win. It has not learned to inhabit its loser status, even as Gandhi tries to do so, and so remains imprisoned.
Those who feel that privilege should be accorded to them are squeamish or lazy about acting decisively in the pursuit of power. But to be a loser also means having to fight for that power, not only accrue it in genteel fashion. One must be a loser not only with grace, but with gusto, straining to win, not taking one’s eyes off the prize for too long even as one takes in the scenery.
Can Rahul Gandhi face this challenge not just philosophically, but libidinally—with a muscular idealism? Which means, can Rahul Gandhi overcome his somewhat bourgeois hesitation to shake up his party organisation, to take some robust risks and show himself as hungry for power? I mean, a good hungry, you know, like after a long walk?
Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker, writer and dedicated antakshari player. She is also the founder of Agents of Ishq, India’s best-loved digital platform about sex, love, and desire.