It was snowing steadily when Rahul Gandhi stepped up to the podium in Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium on January 30. Seemingly unaffected by the cold and snow, he addressed Congress workers, who had flocked from all parts of the country to listen to his speech at the end of his 135-day-long Bharat Jodo Yatra. Rahul Gandhi underlined the dire need for a compassionate leadership in times of division and hate—a theme central to the moribund Congress’ future plans for recovery that would also arrest the country’s rightward slide.
But critics pointed out that even when Rahul Gandhi was speaking against the ruling BJP’s majoritarian politics, he was arguing on its turf. He seized the unexpectedly fervent reception he received in Kashmir to revisit his Pandit lineage and reassert his Hindu identity, even if that assertion seemed meditated rather than spontaneous. A day before, he unfurled the Tricolour at Lal Chowk, a place emblematic of Kashmir’s separatist politics, while studiously avoiding any deep dive into the contentious issue of the abolition of Article 370. These actions and articulations were perhaps the outcome of the belief among sections of the Congress that its return to power would entail some degree of adaptation to the theme of Hindu pride, which has dominated the Narendra Modi years.
But Rahul Gandhi’s nationalism does not have the blatant hostility of far-right nationalists towards Muslims, nor their overt use of triggering topics such as illegal immigration and the Uniform Civil Code. His nationalism is of an accommodating kind, one that acknowledges every man’s sufferings and seeks to overcome differences through common healing.
“My family imbibed the spirit of Kashmiriyat here and carried it to the Sangam in Allahabad, spreading in Uttar Pradesh what is known as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb,” he said, his dishevelled, rugged look lending him an aura of maturity, as a thin but impassioned crowd, drenched in snow like him, cheered and raised slogans. Asadullah Ganaie, who lives in Srinagar’s Sonwar locality, said he found Rahul Gandhi relatable for “he’s taking on hate”. Zubair Bhat, a Kashmir University student, nodded saying: “He brings hope.”
Both Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru wore their Kashmiri Pandit identity on their sleeves, even though Nehru was admittedly agnostic. They knew that any doubt over their Hindu identity would hinder their ability to lead a country that was cleaved into two over religion. Indira Gandhi, particularly, did not leave the “Hindu leader space” open for any far-right usurper. She was staunchly secular, and quintessentially Hindu. When Nehru died, there were processions of Kashmiri Pandit women who beat their chest in grief. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the community was inconsolable.
A soft-Hindu raiment
But Rahul Gandhi did not inherit that allegiance. Much changed in 1990 in the face of militancy and the Pandits’ flight from the Valley, which are chronicled in competing narratives. The Muslims maintain that the flight was encouraged by the then Governor, Jagmohan, to save the Pandits from any retaliation occasioned by his coercive handling of the Muslim majority. Pandits contend that this narrative ignores a threat-laden environment created by armed groups, and was essentially floated by the National Conference, which had an axe to grind with Jagmohan. Rajiv Gandhi endorsed the NC line, rattling the tiny Pandit community which had, until then, treated him as its poster boy.
Sixteen years later, when his son took centre stage at a Congress plenary in Hyderabad in January 2006, party advisers erred again in narrative-setting. “Someone once asked me what my religion was. I thought about it and I answered that the Indian flag was my religion,” Rahul Gandhi’s advisers had him proclaim in a stage-managed debut speech that attracted flattering columns in newspapers. But newspaper columnists, often the idealist minority, are not infallible assessors of the public mood. For conservative sections, Rahul Gandhi’s proclamation translated into some sort of unease in being seen as Hindu.
In the following years, he toiled to win back Muslim and Dalit voters in Uttar Pradesh, unaware of the futility of that exercise. Voters’ migration generally happens when there is either a leadership vacuum or an imminent threat to one’s identity that necessitates new patronage and protection networks. Neither was true for Muslims and Dalits of Uttar Pradesh at the time, who had formidable leaders in Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati respectively and who were, with a Congress government in power in New Delhi, immune to right-wing bullying. Rahul Gandhi’s best bet would have been the forward castes, particularly Brahmins, who were on the lookout for leadership, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani both past their prime.
But the Gandhi scion hopped from thatched houses to dargahs. Expositions of nationalist pride rapidly disappeared from the Congress’ inventory, as if it were a strategy, and on rare occasions when it was evoked, there were no references to Sanskrit, yoga, or Indian sages—the motifs harking back to an ancient heritage that unfailingly animate audiences. In many ways, he allowed Modi’s BJP to hijack patriotism and limn the Congress as un-Hindu, while sharply toxifying the terms of public debate. Today, as Rahul Gandhi is changing into a soft-Hindu raiment, his Kashmiri Pandit lineage comes in handy. Invoking the Pandits’ primary deity, Siva, he talked of shunyata (void), reminding people of the Hindu spiritual tradition that seeks introspection and egoless consciousness.
The question on everyone’s mind now is, how much has he succeeded in reconstructing himself? Unexpectedly, a lot. The prospect of him as the Prime Minister does not appal as much as it did before. He has proven that he is well-intentioned, decent, and is learning from his past mistakes. A section of the BJP’s middle-class voters who are dismayed at Modi’s inability to revive an anaemic economy are willing to assess him from scratch, on the basis of what he does now rather than on what he did before.
Three-time Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor outlined this transformation in a conversation with Frontline. “Rahul Gandhi has neutralised years of derision in the press, which portrayed him as a non-serious, shoot-and-scoot politician. He has risen as an alternative leader who has persistence, determination, and gravitas. The cadre is rejuvenated, and public interest in the Congress is renewed.”
But as Rahul Gandhi scouts to recover political ground, his articulation has to be cogent. It is desirable that he speaks in the measured tone of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is not a great orator but who sticks to carefully prepared, effective scripts. A Kashmiri journalist working with a foreign publication who was discussing the Bharat Jodo Yatra’s import with this reporter suggested that Rahul Gandhi should rely on witty one-liners to counter the surly press that surrounds him.
As the pros and cons of a re-energised Congress get debated, much will depend on the path it treads. At present, it seems to be borrowing heavily from the idealists’ playbook, which believes that Modi can be defeated at one go in 2024 by bringing disparate regional parties under one banner. That thinking is flawed. Given the BJP’s formidable electoral battleship, social coalition, surplus capital, and control on communication and the bureaucracy, a plausible goalpost for the Congress in 2024 would be to stop the BJP at 250 while raking in 100 seats for itself and wait for a post-Modi era, likely in 2029, when the hunt for a new leader would strain the BJP with growing internal rebellion.
Some would like to recall here that Sonia Gandhi’s broad-based alliance of 2004 ousted the Vajpayee regime. But Sonia Gandhi did not face a BJP that had made massive inroads into Dalit and OBC votes—she jousted with what was still more of a Brahmin-Baniya entity, without an interface with India’s hinterland.
The presumption that the 63 per cent electorate who did not vote for Modi in 2019 could be coalesced around a single platform is an impractical one that overstresses the capacity of anti-Modism to overcome caste-based incompatibilities. Successive elections in Uttar Pradesh bore that out. In the 2019 general election, incompatibility between Yadavs and Dalits rocked the alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party. In the 2022 Assembly election, despite Jat leader Jayant Singh Chaudhary and Akhilesh Yadav coming together, the peasant community’s reaction to the SP was tepid, given its regime’s reputation for Muslim appeasement and sloppy law and order.
Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), seems to have a finger on the nation’s pulse. “I don’t understand the alliance of 10 or more parties and an alliance being formed to defeat someone. I don’t want to defeat anyone, I want the country to win,” he said at a public event in Nagpur in May 2022. This line resonates with a section of Modi supporters. In a country responsive to the tutelage of a strong-arm executive, the fabled third front and fourth front come across as a leaderless muddle, vague on the question of national security. The Congress is hurting its own interest by depending too much on them.
“Rahul Gandhi has proven that he is well-intentioned, decent, and is learning from his past mistakes.”
An AAP insider recently told Frontline: “The people, particularly the middle class, want to defect [from the BJP], but it’s just that they don’t want to defect to an amalgam of Mamata [Banerjee], Nitish [Kumar], Akhilesh [Yadav] and Tejashwi [Yadav] who, they suspect, would end the Hindu hegemony seen in the Modi years or unduly favour the minorities.”
A degree of trust
The AAP has a point. The only way Modi can be upstaged is by fragmenting his social coalition, currently 37 per cent of the electorate, by co-opting elements from within it. That would require jettisoning a tendency to sneer at every BJP voter when there is a prospect of weaning away some of them with bread-and-butter issues, and avoiding collision on sensitive areas. In the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton made a similar mistake when she dismissed Republican voters as a “basket of deplorables”, not distinguishing impressionable fence sitters from hard-core Trumpians.
France’s Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, was successful in taking some wind out of the right wing’s sails by reorienting his politics. Faced with the growing acceptability of Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, a far-right political party, the incumbent President occasionally touched on far-right talking points like terrorism and Islamist extremism without normalising them, and enacted new laws which accorded overarching power to the government to track religious groups and close houses of worship. The fine-tuning won him a re-election in April 2022.
A Congress leader, who spoke with this reporter on the sidelines of Rahul Gandhi’s January 29 press briefing in Srinagar, lamented: “You can’t win a national election with a 19 per cent vote share. To broaden it, you have to stir people’s economic interests.” There is little sign of that happening. Another leader of the party, currently a Lok Sabha member, vented his exasperation with the high command which refuses to acknowledge that its “heavily leftist position on the economy resonates poorly with the more aspirational class, which is steadily growing in number”.
Yet, nobody can deny that Rahul Gandhi has generated massive public interest in himself, and also a degree of trust—almost impossible accomplishments given the years of ruthless propaganda that created a pervasive image of him as an aloof and inept dynast.
The new trust in him stems from his exhibition of nationalistic commitment, which was done in the impeccably chosen landscape of Kashmir, whose unremitting pain enables one to emote powerfully. A government officer in Srinagar who works with the Sports Department made an important point: “Despite jingoism, India remains an emotional country. If one is able to emotionally stir people, one’s many mistakes are overlooked, one can redeem [oneself].”
“The security personnel warned me against walking through Kashmir. They said there could be a grenade attack. But my family has taught me to live fearlessly. I was coming back to my home [Kashmir] and I thought, let them drench my white T-shirt in blood, but I would walk,” Rahul Gandhi said, for once outperforming Modi in animating people.
Many fence-sitters are beginning to like him and they are waiting to see what he does next. A strong alternative vision for the country, one that appeals to every voter’s economic interest, whether they identify with the Left or the Right, will make a persuasive case for change. Chastising Narendra Modi will not.
- At the end of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Srinagar, Rahul Gandhi underlined the dire need for a compassionate leadership in times of division and hate.
- The question on everyone’s mind now is, how much has he succeeded in reconstructing himself?
- He has proven that he is well-intentioned, decent, and is learning from his past mistakes.
- The new trust in him stems from his exhibition of nationalistic commitment, which was done in the impeccably chosen landscape of Kashmir, whose unremitting pain enables one to emote powerfully.
- Many fence-sitters are beginning to like him and they are waiting to see what he does next.