Who does not remember that poignant image of a very young Rahul Gandhi hugging his father at the funeral of his grandmother? Indira Gandhi, the strongest prime minister India has ever had, had been brutally gunned down by her own bodyguards just a few days before. Our hearts ached as we saw the child trying to make sense of it all, and the stoic expression of his father who tried to find words to help his son come to terms with the calamity that had befallen them. Rajiv not only had his children to console, he had the responsibility of the government and the whole country. He simply held his son close to him.
The traumatised nation was seeking direction and the focus naturally shifted to Rahul’s father who was soon to be sworn in as the new prime minister of the country. The political upheaval in the country died down. But for many of us, the image of the father and son locked in an embrace, remained hauntingly etched in our memory.
Following the tragic assassination, the young children, Rahul and his younger sister Priyanka, were mostly kept away from the limelight and we saw very little of them as they grew up. They were taken out of their schools in Delhi and were home-schooled for security reasons. Every movement they made was under the watchful eyes of their security detail.
Unfortunately, seven years later, extreme tragedy struck the family again, in the form of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul, was now a young man all of 21 years of age. We saw him again, this time lighting the pyre at his father’s funeral, and wondered at the colossal amount of grief and trauma he must be feeling. Perhaps he had turned numb. It cannot be easy to bear the loss of two of his dearest ones to violent assassinations. Rahul never showed us how he felt. He is a naturally reserved person.
It was only recently at his talk in Berkeley that he allowed us to get a glimpse of his pain. He talked of that fateful day in October 1984, when his grandmother was assassinated. He said that he lost not only his grandmother that day, but also his two favourite playmates. The guards who had turned on Indira Gandhi and riddled her with bullets, he said, used to play badminton with him in the evenings. The shock, the betrayal and the loss, are surely too much for any one person to bear!
Speaking about Rahul, a very emotional Sonia Gandhi said in her speech on the day he took over as the President of the Congress Party, “Rahul is my son so I do not think for me to praise him is right but I would say that since his childhood he had to bear the brunt of violence. After joining politics, he had to face blatant personal attacks that have made him a stronger person.”
The personal attacks and the ridicule peaked in the recently concluded campaign in Gujarat. But, Rahul’s inner strength was evident as he responded to the viciousness and vitriol with calm, refusing to be baited and provoked. In fact, in response to the attacks, Rahul Gandhi expressed his gratitude to Modiji for having made him a stronger person by attacking him over the years. “I would not be where I am, if it were not for the PM attacking me.”
Mark Tully, warned in an article last week said, “Many journalists failed to recognise Sonia’s inner strength and we may be doing the same in our disparaging coverage of her son.”
This realisation is beginning to strike many in the media and in the political parties. Rahul Gandhi’s quietly successful campaign in Gujarat has drawn praise from allies and even from as unlikely quarters as the Shiv Sena, which credits him with having pulled the Congress out of the ashes.
There definitely has been a noticeable shift in Rahul Gandhi’s working style as seen in the Gujarat campaign. His detractors have been silenced. No longer can he be considered a ‘part time politician’ as the BJP’s malicious, sustained campaign tried to vilify him over the years. No longer can the media afford to ridicule Rahul Gandhi or derogatorily refer to him as ‘Pappu’ (a term coined by the BJP) says Barkha Dutt, in her article, for the Washington Post.
The Gujarat elections have revealed one thing. While the BJP won, Rahul Gandhi emerged the true victor. He has shown tremendous maturity, courage and a charm so reminiscent of his father. He has disarmed and defanged his detractors, unafraid to take on the so far formidable prime minister or the fierce BJP machinery, standing up against them as a one-man-army. Despite the bitterly acrimonious and, at times, shrill attacks from the ruling party machinery and the prime minister himself, Rahul remained unruffled, refusing to shift his focus from the issues of the people.
He conducted a positive campaign, showing humility in the face of arrogance, decorum in the face of impropriety and dignity in the face of crassness.
What we saw on the campaign trail, was a compassionate person who lent an ear to the problems of the common man. Despite allegations of being elitist and being referred to as the Shehzada, Rahul spent time with the people, connected with them and embraced them like he were one of their own. Only someone who has suffered pain and hurt can empathise and understand another’s pain. Rahul was affected by the pain and suffering that he saw and promised to speak up for the people.
He respected the electorate by speaking only of issues …political, economic and social, issues of relevance to the people of Gujarat. He addressed, as political campaigns are meant to, the governance deficit in the state and demanded accountability of the state government, ‘Baees saal ka hisaab’ as he called it. He remained consistent and pushed for answers, proving to the people of Gujarat and, to Indians everywhere, that the Gujarat Model was a myth. Rahul has also bust the myth that Narendra Modi is invincible. He has demonstrated to the other opposition parties that the saffron brigade is not undefeatable. Many are hoping that he leads the alliance of the opposition parties in the general election of 2019 to stem the tide of the saffron brigade. In the last few months, he has emerged as a strong political force.
Wherever he went, the people experienced for the first time a Rahul who let his guard down, allowing his great sense of humour and his warmth, his empathy and his compassion to emerge. He charmed whoever he met. In a gently self deprecating manner, he even invited some journalists to meet his true friend ‘Pidi’ who instantly became a social media sensation in the country.
Rahul Gandhi is now embarking on a Dharma Yudh, fighting to restore civility and decency in the political discourse, which has in recent years descended into rabble-rousing and gutter sniping. In Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi led by example and repeatedly beseeched his followers and his party-men, to disallow the political discourse to descend into a coarse name calling. He acted swiftly by suspending as senior a leader as Mani Shankar Aiyer, showing he meant business. He left all the political commentators and his political rivals in shocked awe in doing so. The pressure was huge on the ruling party to show similar intent. Alas, how can the BJP axe all its important leaders? Because to spew filth is the only way the party knows.
He ended the campaign in Gujarat with the words, “I want to change the political discourse. It has become nasty, ugly and there is a lot of anger and angst. We want to do politics of love and compassion.”
Rahul has reminded all of us what elections are about. They are about the people. They are about issues. Political power is not something to be acquired for personal aggrandisement; it has a purpose. And that is, to serve the people.
Rahul Gandhi has now become the president of the Congress Party, and he takes on a tough role. He has to lead a considerably weakened Congress Party against those whose aim it is to create a Congress Mukt Bharat. The Gujarat results have enthused and energised the party cadres and encouraged them to fight back against the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi told us, as he became president of the Congress, that he is an idealist and wishes to take the country forward. There can’t be more pleasant words to hear in a time where idealism has been relegated to the boondocks. We want idealism back. We want to believe in it once again.
As he takes office, there is hope amongst the party-men that they will see a resurrection of the party and amongst the people of the country that we now have a choice. We are hopeful that we return to the secular values that attempt to integrate the diverse and pluralistic population of this country. And that we can get back to setting the country back on track of economic growth and development and political, social and diplomatic stability. After all, winning an election is not the only criteria of success. It has to be followed up with governance. The issues of the electorate have to be addressed.
As Sardar Patel said, and Rahul Gandhi quoted on his death anniversary, the 15th of December, “Take the path of Dharma...the path of truth and justice. Don’t misuse your valour. Remain united and march forward in all humility but fully awake to the situation you face, demanding your rights with firmness.”
In this climate of hatred, anger and aggression, a nation waits with hope and a prayer for Rahul’s success.
(The writer is the chairperson of AICC grievance cell)