Is Liberal Politics at the Core of Rahul Gandhi’s Stunts in South?

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu recently, Gandhi not only engaged with the public, but also revealed himself to them.

Updated
Tamil Nadu
5 min read
In Kerala and Tamil Nadu recently, Rahul Gandhi not only engaged with the public, but also revealed himself to them.
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It is not common knowledge that Rahul Gandhi runs at least 25 km every day. In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – through its PR campaigns – has made it amply clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a penchant for yoga.

The image imbalance between Gandhi and Modi is bound to change as the Congress has kicked off a unique election campaign in Tamil Nadu and Kerala where Assembly elections will be held on 6 April.

What is it all about?

A Method To the Stunts

So far, as part of the campaign, Gandhi has cooked on a YouTube culinary channel, performed push-ups in Tamil Nadu, and deep-sea dived in Kerala.

And as most videos of his athletic feats go viral, a people connect seems to be emerging.

According to a recent survey released on 27 February, Gandhi is the preferred prime ministerial candidate in Tamil Nadu and Kerala by a considerable margin. Of the other states going to polls – West Bengal and Assam – he trails behind Modi by a wide margin.

Rahul Gandhi is the preferred prime ministerial candidate in Tamil Nadu and Kerala by a considerable margin.
Rahul Gandhi is the preferred prime ministerial candidate in Tamil Nadu and Kerala by a considerable margin.
(Photo: The Quint/Vedika Dawar)

While the numbers are promising, what do his stunts politically signify?

While these are the Congress’ publicity exercises, at the heart of it all is a liberal image which Gandhi seems to be projecting for the benefit of his party.

Revealing the Person Within

The last week of February, Gandhi spent a morning fishing with fishermen in Kollam, Kerala. “He was addressing a political rally of fishermen that afternoon. He did not want to speak to them without interacting with them personally,” Manickam Tagore, the All India Congress Committee in-charge for Telangana, told The Quint.

Later that week, in a school in Kanyakumari, Gandhi accepted a push-up challenge posed by a 15-year-old girl. He also cooked with a group of philanthropists for the popular Village Cooking Show channel on Youtube.

Among senior Congress leaders, some of these personal traits – his exercise routine, for instance – are well known.

“We have known him as a person for long. Now it is time for the public to know Rahul Gandhi,” Dinesh Gundu Rao, the Congress leader in charge of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, told The Quint.

“He runs for one and a half hours every day. What he is as a person, is what you are getting to know now,” Tagore added.

Gandhi’s frank disposition seems to be intentionally crafted. Twenty nine-year-old Sebin Cyriac, who filmed Gandhi’s deep-sea dive for his vlog, said, “He gave me complete freedom to do the video. Not even once did he ask me to follow a format. He liked the fact that I liked it natural”.

The video has gone viral ever since – and has piqued the interest of youth.

“I did not expect him to be such a sport. Like me, many young people have suddenly realised that Rahul Gandhi is fit.”
Sebin Cyriac, Vlogger 

Converting Viral Content Into Votes

Has Gandhi’s new avatar helped the Grand Old Party boost its image even as senior leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad are seemingly disgruntled?

“It is going to be very difficult for the Congress to convert his image into votes – and that’s what really matters. Only a few young people who do not know much about politics maybe attracted to this. The real voters would not pay heed to the muscles on a man.”
A senior BJP leader in Tamil Nadu

However, as if worried about the campaign strategy, the BJP had asked the Election Commission to restrain Gandhi’s campaign in Tamil Nadu.

The party has also been making a series of comments to ridicule Gandhi. In Puducherry and Kerala, Gandhi told fishermen that he would establish a ministry for fisheries. The Ministry for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, however, was established in 2019 – and the BJP’s Giriraj Singh, the minister in charge of the portfolio, accused Gandhi of misleading people.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the abs and the errors, political observers say that Gandhi has been channeling the essence of liberal politics which has steadily diminished in India’s political spectrum.

What’s Liberal About It?

Gandhi who has been dressing and speaking casual “does not come across as an authoritarian figure,” a political expert told The Quint. On the flip side, he has been easily engaging with crowds.

“Throughout his stay on the fishing boat, he seemed genuinely interested in knowing the ways of the trade.”
Sebin Cyriac, Vlogger

The “ability to listen and the idea of direct engagement” are liberal tropes, the political expert explained, adding that Gandhi is “an easily digestible and likeable politician” in Kerala and Tamil Nadu which have had long histories of left-liberal and subaltern discourses.

While in these southern states, #GoBackModi is the general online sentiment towards the Prime Minister, Gandhi’s visits to these parts are widely accepted – and often enjoyed.

“What has been the most striking aspect of his visit is the forgiveness note he extended to those allegedly responsible for his father’s death. While the rest of India may have forgotten Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, South India remembers it distinctly, especially since it happened in Tamil Nadu in a different political climate,” said KT Rammohan, a Kerala-based political scientist.

Expressing his forgiveness for the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, Gandhi had said that he holds “no anger”.

“In politics where settling scores seems to be the norm, it is a liberal posturing that Gandhi has done,” Rammohan said. The move has garnered support across party lines, he observed.

The Strength Which Is Not Leveraged

Will Gandhi be able to steer the Congress towards its core strength – liberal politics that is grounded?

“In the Congress, MPs and MLAs listen to bureaucrats. Gandhi wants that trend to change. He wants leaders to mingle with people and work for the party on the ground,” a Congress leader said on condition of anonymity.

Another leader added, “He has set the tone for the campaign. Other Congress leaders should now follow him”.

Gundu Rao called Gandhi “a force multiplier” – adding that he is a national leader who is aligned to state’s liberal political history.

However, despite Gandhi’s campaign prowess, the DMK – the Congress’ ally in Tamil Nadu – has been treating state unit leaders of the party rather poorly during seat-sharing talks.

In Telangana where the Congress has lost several of its MLAs to defections post the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party badly needs a boost. In Kerala, the ABP C-Voter survey predicts the Congress alliance will lose.

There is still a silver lining. In 2019, when a survey done by India Today had found that Gandhi was the preferred prime ministerial candidate in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the DMK-Congress alliance had swept the Lok Sabha polls by bagging 37 out of the 38 MP seats in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the Congress-led UDF had won 19 out of the 20 Lok Sabha seats.

While these victories were largely due to the anti-BJP sentiment reverberating in these states, Gandhi’s presence did provide an alternate national political leader for the people to bank on. Will the magic work again?

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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