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You can take Rahul out of Pappu but not the Pappu out of Rahul

By hekhar Gupta

22nd July 2018

A Rahul Gandhi who hugs his inner Pappu is Narendra Modi’s clear challenger and target for 2019.

This Friday’s debate on the Opposition’s no-confidence motion answers several questions. First, should the Opposition let the BJP make it a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi election in 2019, or fight it state by state? Rahul has himself made it a direct contest with Modi now.

Second, should the BJP even worry about Rahul? The truth is BJP has never not taken him seriously. One “suit-boot” remark from him changed the political economy of the Modi government. More evidence came as this session began. The BJP may insist its retreat on the RTI Act amendments had nothing to do with Rahul’s opposition, but it is unlikely that anybody will be convinced, except doting Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.

After this debate, the BJP will shed any remaining doubts as to who is their man to attack. By the time you read this column, the BJP would have fielded its warrior army to assert how Rahul doesn’t matter. It will mean exactly the opposite. If you are disdainful of somebody, you ignore, not obsess over him.

Third, will Rahul ever show political commitment needed for a serious challenger, at least to his followers, if not the BJP? The answer comes in his performance today. It is a yes.

He has risen in stature as the pre-eminent leader of the opposition in a Parliament where his party is too tiny to even have a formal Leader of Opposition. With this, Rahul has also staked a claim to the leadership of the pre-eminent anti-Modi front in the next elections.

And fourth: Has Rahul now shed his “Pappu” image? In his speech he said he didn’t mind if he was called Pappu, but his party would like to believe that he is over with that image. We’d argue that he hasn’t. You can take Rahul out of Pappu, but not quite the Pappu out of Rahul. Or he wouldn’t have winked in that youthful (rivals would prefer ‘juvenile’) triumph.

It isn’t such a bad thing to be your cheeky self, even a little impertinent in a political world filled with lecturing and hectoring “grand uncles” and “aunties”. It may not be such a liability to be Pappu-ish. The electorate is young, and the young get bored with constant sermonising.

Who won the debate is now irrelevant. Because Modi is a champion orator, a master of the set-piece and at his brilliant best when on the offensive (ever seen him on the defensive?). But, a maximum of eight months before his government becomes caretaker, debating victories or defeat mean little. The important thing is that he now has a clear rival and target. His supporters can no longer complain that Modi is fighting an amorphous, secular-liberal ‘khap’ with no votes or stakes but hyperactive social media handles and an exaggerated dominance of the commentariat. His opponents have now moved a challenger in the ‘akhada’ and the bout is all set.

His party will say this is precisely what they wanted. But they would’ve been surprised by the clarity and aggression with which Rahul stated his intent.

In his vicious attack on the prime minister, Rahul’s repeated invocation of “daro mat” (don’t be afraid) and then stooping to hug, he took a big risk in playing to his much stronger rival’s strengths: The craft of oratory, and of course the art of extravagant hugs. Ju-jitsu is great when you are playing real Ju-jitsu or as a metaphor in fiction. In hard politics, it can be suicidal.

If you decide to approach politics as a contact sport, you must remember the BJP and Modi are deans of the school where you might be a mere upstart pupil. But then, in the battle for headlines and highlights, where warriors search desperately for that one key moment, you have to take risks. Rahul has taken the biggest in his 14-year political life by taking the war to Modi’s turf. He has won this skirmish on points if not a knock-out.

Rahul’s supporters, however, need to be sobered by facts. Winning a few debating points does not change political realities, to begin with, of the 325-126 vote in Lok Sabha. He is still a long way from becoming a credible threat to Modi. He has no electoral victory under his belt as yet. Response to his campaign rallies has improved but is nowhere close to Modi’s or even to the many state leaders — from Mamata to Mayawati, Akhilesh to Lalu/Tejashwi and Naveen Patnaik to Telangana’s K. Chandrashekar Rao. His party now rules one-and-a-half major states (Karnataka being the half). It is starved for resources. By the time the campaign begins, it is likely that most of his partymen and family members will be running around the courts answering “corruption” charges. That’s where his “daro-mat” rallying call came from. In 2019, his challenge will be akin to a team starting its second innings with a first innings deficit of almost 230 (44 versus 270 or so). There is no evidence of a shift in the “hawa” that such a deficit can be covered.

The real takeaway, therefore, isn’t that Rahul has risen. He hasn’t yet and has a long way to go. He has only emerged, been unveiled or, to use the description TV channels would prefer, come of age. There have been doubts about his commitment and focus. With frequent disappearances and holidays, he has built an image of flakiness. His partymen would never dare tell him this, but they worry and often feel rudderless, asking if their boss is really in it full-time. This Parliament should help answer those doubts, though more evidence will be needed going ahead.

Next, he has revealed a style very different from his mother’s. So far, she and her party had treated the post-Vajpayee BJP with contempt, an enemy and Modi as an untouchable. It suited Modi fine as he’s an instinctive fighter. Searching for metaphors in stray events can be tricky. But just a decade ago, Sonia Gandhi was calling Modi “maut ke saudagar” (a trader of death). Modi paid back in kind, Jersey cow, calf and all. Now Rahul went down to hug him, saying he loved him. Nobody is so naive as to believe he meant it. But sarcasm in politics is way less offensive than abuse or untouchability.

Similarly, he has also gone against his party’s grain by so readily handing over chief ministership to junior partner JD-S in Karnataka. He would go and hug Modi, pretend to even love him, but his politics now is clear: Anybody but Modi. And never mind if it isn’t me.

It is early to say how this will influence politics in this election year. But much ambiguity is removed and battle-lines drawn. On a minimalist plane, hopefully this lively new Parliamentary beginning will result in a more productive session. There is much legislative work to do before campaigning begins for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.

This article was originally published in The Print.