His backers say the prime ministers announcement that he is no longer in contention for the top job seems to have unshackled Rahul Gandhi, who until then had been asked to respect boundaries by his mother Sonia. The last time Rahul breached that limit was when he announced the ordinance to save convicted lawmakers from disqualification should be torn up and thrown away. This was when Prime Minister Singh was abroad, and Sonia spoke to him later to say she had told her son this was not the way to voice dissent.
The Rahul Gandhi team feels that had it not been for this need to respect limits, he would have been able to respond strongly to the challenge posed by the Aam Aadmi Party, while others say he could easily have prevailed but chose not to. There will always be two views on everything, says Satyavrat Chaturvedi, MP. He was busy with organisational work. Now with elections close, he has to interact with the people.
The belief in the Rahul Gandhi camp that Arvind Kejriwal hijacked their agenda and their target support base is at the heart of the project to repackage Rahul and reclaim the perceived lost space. With his anointment as the head of the partys campaign comes a remodelled strategy based on the abbreviation NRMB (non-rich, non-middle class, non-BPL). This, according to Congress strategists, represents 70 crore people comprising largely the unskilled and semi-skilled, service-providing population below the middle class.
The effort took off with a rather choreographed interaction with street vendors beamed live on TV in what is tied to the idea of an open manifesto-making process again a leaf out of Arvind Kejriwals book, but one that Rahul Gandhis aides claim was in fact their idea but which hadnt found traction in the Congress. Rahul plans similar meetings with domestic workers and construction workers. He will focus on class politics rather than caste politics, a senior leader said.
Then came his appearance at Jantar Mantar to join agitating students from the Northeast. This again was part of an attempt to reclaim the perceived space ceded to the AAP. Its not that he has not identified himself with popular issues in the past, cases in point being his involvement in the Bhatta-Parsaul agitation and his support to Niyamgiri tribals. In Delhi, however, he had been silent during protests over the gangrape of a student in a bus, the debate over the Lokpal Bill, and the flight home of northeasterners who had perceived a threat following ethnic violence in Assam.
I think it is good and see it as a natural evolution, says AICC general secretary Shakeel Ahmed. As a general secretary, he confined his activities to the Youth Congress and the NSUI. He chose not to encroach upon the territories of other leaders and general secretaries. Now he is the vice president leading the party into the elections, he is leading from the front.
From an ad agency on contract have come a proliferation of posters. Their taglines not I but we, not advice but results, not politics but work, dont divide, unite are clearly aimed at packaging Rahul Gandhi as inclusive, and a clear shot at the AAP for failing to govern.
He is hoping to merge the old-fashioned class politics activism practised by comrades with new-age, issue-based activism that appeals to the middle class and is championed by Arvind Kejriwal and Co, says a leader.
Consider some of his recent actions:
* He used the AICC stage to exhort the prime minister to increase the cap for subsidised gas cylinders to 12, hoping to reach out to this broad consumer base.
* He showed solidarity with students from the Northeast, and asked Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde to set up a time-bound committee to look into their concerns. He sent AICC secretary K Jayakumar to Arunachal Pradesh to represent the party at the funeral of the student killed, a way to show he can deliver results more effectively than the AAP.
* He met civil service aspirants agitating against some of the changes in the examination pattern. Those close to him say the demands on age relaxation and additional attempts have a resonance among the youth, a group seen as supportive of the AAP.
* Rahul Gandhi has been trying to claim the anti-corruption platform with a Lokpal-plus package. Hence the push to get six pending anti-corruption laws passed.
* He has voiced his support to the LGBT community after the Supreme Court reversed a high court order decriminalising gay sex.
Coupled with these is an aggressive pan-India media strategy:
* Rahul Gandhi will meet media leaders in each state and give interviews to leading vernacular newspapers and news channels; there will also be more informal interactive sessions with Congress correspondents and senior editors.
* A dedicated wing within his office to address media queries; professionals hired to deal with media queries.
* Live telecast of his speeches on the revamped Congress website through web-based INC TV. The footage will be put up on multiple social media platforms.
* Back to his jeans and kurta for an image makeover to connect with the young.
Rahul Gandhis critics within the party say his attempt at repackaging himself has come too late in the day. We cannot underestimate the wisdom of the people. All these have come close to the elections. Unlike in the BJP, there was no confusion over the leadership in the Congress. It was clear who the number two after Sonia Gandhi is. So, he should have become more active when the going had started getting tough for the government and the Congress, a senior leader said.
In fact, the selection of the ad agency itself overshot the deadline. The cause cited is the complexities in the Congress. It is not a simple system as one would imagine from outside. There are many complexities at play. He did his best to create an image. But he could not have gone against the prime minister or the government openly as the Congress president did not want him to undermine the PM, one of his associates said.
Inputs by APPU ESTHOSE SURESH