The slag in Prime Minister's Narendra Modi's momentum, the result of a series of missteps by the seemingly invincible duo of Modi and Shah have an expected beneficiary: Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to be promoted as Congress president by the end of this month.
In a sign that he's being finally taken seriously by the BJP, its top leaders over-reacted to his recent speech at Berkeley; if the speech were as mediocre as they claim, why did top ministers hold press conferences and expound on it? Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani dubbed him a "failed dynast" at one of these, leading the Congress to believe that Gandhi has unnerved the ruling part.
Today, Shah, Irani and other BJP leaders will be in Amethi, Gandhi's constituency, to announce a slew of schemes as part of a plan to torpedo him in his family bastion as reported earlier by me here.
Sure, it took a foreign trip for Gandhi, known for his frequent travel abroad, to find his mojo. But as nearly 13 union ministers were trotted out to counter him and spin a narrative of how Gandhi insulted India abroad, they fell flat, including on social media, the BJP's strongest playground, where they were countered and told that criticising a government and a leader's policies is not the same as insulting India.
My investigations for my book "I Am a Troll: Inside the BJP's Secret Digital Army" revealed a virtual industry and production line of jokes, tweets and memes to discredit Gandhi dating back to 2012. Gandhi seemed to acknowledge this in Berkeley where he said, "There is a BJP machine: about a thousand guys sitting on computers. They basically tell you things about me. They tell you I am reluctant, I am reluctant. And all they do is spread abuse about me. And the operation is run by the gentleman who is running our country."
The Congress is also finally getting its act together on social media. The BJP still moves faster, but fake news and photoshopped claims are being debunked at lightning speed by fact check sites which may compel it to review its strategy.
After Gandhi takes over as Congress President, sources say that he will start using a personal handle apart from the current @OfficeofRG. His tweets attacking the government such as on the Jay Amit Shah affair have become sharper and more political.
"We have given Rahul Gandhi traction. He was hardly occupying any mind-space, but the crude way in which we attacked has ensured that people are intrigued. We have unnecessarily got BJP-friendly channels to attack him. Take this diaper comment (The BJP said yesterday that Gandhi needs to get out of diapers) - it was in such bad taste. People don't like such low-level attacks. Some dignity has to be maintained. Did you ever see Atal-ji stooping to this level?" said a BJP leader who asked not to be named.
The reality is that the BJP is for the first time since 2014 confronting the possibility of widespread dissatisfaction which threatens to obliterate the happy hangover of the Uttar Pradesh triumph earlier this year. Modi, the undoubted reason for that victory, has to now correct a laggard economy and farmer protests. Whether or not the pain they cause is short-term, as the government claims, the twin disruptions of demonetization and a convoluted GST rollout have come to bite.
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The Congress has also changed its approach by attacking the government on the unraveling economy and the string of broken promises of acche din (good days) and "good governance" rather than emotive communal issues which only fortify the BJP.
"We are telling the people that good days have only come for a select few and let me say I have addressed dozens of meetings in Madhya Pradesh and the people are receptive. They see the string of broken promises and are restive and ready to commit to a change," said Congress leader Kamal Nath to me.
Senior Congress leaders across generations are in agreement that Gandhi needs to take over quickly as the country seems to be receptive to the new narrative. With two state Congress units (Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir) passing resolutions asking Gandhi to take over, some understanding seems to have been worked out on the inter-generational conflict in the Congress. While Gandhi will have his own team, the long-term advisors of his mother and boss Sonia Gandhi will be used to reach out to other parties and handle alliances for the Congress. Sonia Gandhi, who is now the longest-serving Congress President in history, will assume the role of a party mentor as she is still seen as key to the party's political outreach and the preferred point of contact for opposition leaders like Lalu Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. Congress leaders now openly jeer at the BJP's "margdarshak mandal" where unwanted veterans like LK Advani have been shelved and say we don't put out senior leaders to pasture, they will play a role as long as they want.
"Whatever is the Sonia team, is the Rahul team - there is no such distinction in the Congress. We will all work together. Mrs Gandhi is always there to give us advice and mentor us. And it's high time Rahul took over as even I, with all my years of politics, did not anticipate that Modi will unravel so fast. It's like a machine gun waiting to go off" said Kamal Nath.
In any case, Gandhi Junior has been calling the shots for a while now with his mother ceding decision-making to him. Sources say after Gandhi's elevation, decisions will be made on an aggressive play for Gujarat, due to vote in two months, and who should lead the Congress campaign for Madhya Pradesh.
While Modi and Shah are the sharpest political minds ever to occupy Indian political centerstage, the economy and the new controversy involving Shah's only son could bog them down. Having set a public target of 150 seats for Gujarat, anything smaller as a victory margin will now prove to be a public embarrassment for Modi and Shah.
Just the formal promotion of Rahul Gandhi to Congress president will not give his party a big thrust. But it may help to shake him and other leaders out of their blow-hot-blow-cold approach to taking on Modi. It may not stop him, but it could make it less of a walkover.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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