One of the lasting images of Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) is perhaps, of Rahul Gandhi marching in fiercely cold weather, sporting a white t-shirt. Doesn’t Mr Gandhi feel cold? This question not only stirred up the media but even many Indians watching the party’s former president walk towards Kashmir, wondering just the same.
And then came an answer from veteran party leader Salman Khurshid. “Rahul Gandhi is superhuman … He is like a Yogi doing his ‘Tapasya’ with focus," said the former union minister, comparing him to Lord Ram. Of course, the Congress did not officially identify with what he said or even with his sister. According to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, “Rahul doesn’t field cold as he wears the shield of truth."
While the truth behind Mr Gandhi’s ‘cold resistance’ isn’t clear, one thing that could be safely argued from how Congress leaders tried to answer the question is: there seems to be a conscious effort by those at the helm to project a certain image of Rahul Gandhi. And if it had commenced with the Yatra, Mr Gandhi’s latest pictures of skiing flamboyantly in Gulmarg suggest that the project of rebranding him is not yet over.
There seems to be a conscious effort by those at the helm to project a certain image of Rahul Gandhi.
This line of thinking holds if the party is to have a chance against the ruling dispensation, Mr Gandhi’s image would have to be brought at par with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What seems to be driving this apparent re-branding exercise is a desire to craft a larger-than-life image of Rahul Gandhi as an exalted leader who ‘stands beyond’ the quotidian attributes that make up the multitude.
The most problematic aspect of such a rebranding is that it makes Mr. Gandhi almost indistinguishable from those whom he claims to fight as political adversaries.
Why Does RaGa Need Rebranding
For some time now, a section of political pundits has been arguing that Congress’ successive debacles are largely because India’s electorate does not take Rahul Gandhi’s leadership credentials very seriously. Most of them feel that his perception as a ‘soft’ leader who did not possess the strength and aura needed to establish India as a ‘strong nation’, has spiraled into a crisis of acceptance of the Congress itself. Therefore, this line of thinking holds if the party is to have a chance against the ruling dispensation, Mr Gandhi’s image would have to be brought at par with Prime Minister Modi.
Not only with regard to his t-shirt, but if one generally looks at how Mr Gandhi has been posturing through BJY and thereafter, it isn’t difficult to realise that Congress is taking the task of rebranding him very seriously.
Many in the Congress as well as outside appear quite optimistic that the exercise would help the leader come into his own, thereby, also heralding Congress’ revival. Whether such a change would actually take place remains to be seen. But what is quite apparent is Mr Gandhi’s new image is poised to be an alter ego of the dominant perception of him as a political simpleton—a “Pappu” as his detractors refer him.
So what does the re-branded Rahul Gandhi look like? What has he become if not soft-spoken, ‘timid’, and un-heroic?
Visuals of Mr Gandhi walking miles every single day, his flowing grey beard, viral images of his six-pack abs, videos of him easily outperforming his colleagues while doing pushups, apart from sporting a t-shirt while passing through the coldest regions of the subcontinent, essentially convey a single message:
What seems to be driving this apparent re-branding exercise is a desire to craft a larger-than-life image of Rahul Gandhi as an exalted leader who ‘stands beyond’ the quotidian attributes that make up the multitude. This is an image that is quite distinct from the image of a leader who ‘stands among’ the people, like say how Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee tries to project themselves — as one among the masses.
Issue With Rahul Gandhi's rebranding
From what has been alluded to so far, it becomes quite apparent that Mr Gandhi’s new image relies significantly on underlining his strong machismo quotient. Here is someone who has enough prowess to match up to the 56-inch chest-wielding strongman on the other side. The problem lies precisely in this aspiration to cultivate such a mirror image, consciously or otherwise.
And it is so not only in view of the larger political discourse prevalent in the country but also for the objectives that the Congress seeks to achieve by re-branding its leader. For the route Mr Gandhi’s re-branding has taken treads a slippery slope. After all, it easily runs the risk of reinforcing more conservative notions of political leadership, often carrying messianic undertones.
The effective leader does not have to have a ‘formidable’ physical stature, spawn hyper-masculinity and chivalry all around, be interested in adventure sports and not feel cold even in the middle of winter. However, the most problematic aspect of such a rebranding is that it makes Mr Gandhi almost indistinguishable from those whom he claims to fight as political adversaries.
The ‘Strongman syndrome’ is the hallmark and central mobilising strategy of right-wing politics not only in India but globally. From Bolsonaro to Trump, Erdogan to Netanyahu, Johnson to Modi—all have come to power mounting on the back of an electorate which saw them as strong, masculine, and tough leaders who could bring them out of their socio-political crisis at the wink of an eye. His rebranding, therefore, begins to look more like an aspiration to become one of them.
If Mr Gandhi claims to stand against right-wing politics, the question that ultimately arises is whether his rebranded self, itself constituted from the former’s worldview, would be able to offer any worthwhile image of an alternate world? Even his well-wishers can ask themselves – if the point of rebranding was to cultivate a leadership image that bears striking resemblance to what Congress claims to oppose, what is their possibility of winning the game when the adversary continues to prompt the rules of the game.
(The authors are doctoral students at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)