In October, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) placed advertisements in multiple Kannada newspapers to demean and devalue Rahul Gandhi. The move was in reaction to the positive response the Bharat Jodo Yatra has so far received in Karnataka.
There was nothing new in this attack on the Congress leader as ridiculing Rahul Gandhi and stripping him of trustworthiness has been one of the most successful campaigns in Indian politics in the last two decades. But the fact that advertisements had to be placed in newspapers to create a dent on Rahul Gandhi’s image revealed why calling him ‘Pappu’ may not cut it anymore.
A significant shift seems to have happened in people’s perception of Rahul Gandhi, making mere name-calling and gossip ineffective. Public opinion seems to have changed, and the BJP seems to have lost grip over the narrative.
A 2018 Flashback To Understand Rahul
The shift in public perception – which seems to be apparent now – was not so real in 2018, when this author published an article about Rahul Gandhi’s personality. The same article, under changed circumstances, has resurfaced now and is ironically being warmly accepted and amplified by Kannada netizens during his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The 2018 article attempted to understand Rahul Gandhi, as a person and not a politician, by focusing on a comment that he made during his then Singapore visit.
In an interactive session with former students of IIM, Rahul Gandhi said, “My sister and I have completely forgiven the assassins of our father.” He continued, “I knew my grandmother and father would end up being killed. Initially I was filled with pain and rage. But eventually I forgave everyone.”
He also said, “In history, many forces collide and it results in irreparable losses and irreversible damages,” to contextualise the assassination of his father, and added, “When the LTTE commander Prabhakaran was killed, I immediately remembered his children, because I know what it means to be there in that position and go through such a traumatic experience.”
At the time, speaking about forgiveness, pain, and sufferings, in an era of normalised hate speeches, made Rahul Gandhi stand out, earning him my respect.
It was not the first time he had spoken in a dignified and kind manner. The instance quoted above, and a few similar instances in the past, came across as non-pretentious and non-performative.
Yet, back then, his words and gesture of humaneness had not received warmth in a country that wished to see a 56-inch chest in their leader. But now, the wind seems to have changed course.
However, what remains unchanged is how Rahul Gandhi conducts himself and responds to exercises to malign his image – he is calm, composed, and nonreactive.
A Disclaimer and Why Loss and Pain Could Have Impacted the Making of Rahul Gandhi
This author has never imagined Rahul Gandhi as a leader. One of the reasons for this could be that a leader is always attributed with hyper-masculine characteristics. On the other hand, though I have neither been a follower nor a fan of Rahul Gandhi, I have always harboured a soft corner for the man that he is and the way his life has unfolded so far.
Rahul Gandhi was just 10 years old when he witnessed the unnatural death of his uncle Sanjay Gandhi, and the human and political drama that followed. He was just 14 years old when his grandmother, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was shot dead. The assassin of his grandmother was the very person who used to play badminton with him every day. His father Rajiv Gandhi, who had stayed away from politics for the longest time, then became the Prime Minister overnight.
Rahul Gandhi, according to his own version of events, had a premonition that the fate of his father wouldn’t be any different from that of the grandmother. His worst fears came true when his father was brutally murdered within a few years of becoming the Prime Minister.
Rahul Gandhi’s mother Sonia Gandhi was not accepted with affection by the people of this country shortly after her husband’s demise. Till date, she is referred to as an ‘outsider’ in some political quarters and addressed with bitter words for the same reason. Later, when his mother could have become the Prime Minister in 2004, people spat venom. In fact, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj went to the extent of declaring that she would shave her head if Sonia Gandhi were to become the Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi has seen such hatred and insults being shot at his mother, from close proximity.
The leader, who is marching with the masses now, was in his formative years when his life was scarred by massive losses, hatred, and pain. What impact did these events have on him? What dent did these occurrences make in him?
What would be the soliloquy of Rahul Gandhi who carries the baggage of such heavy experiences? What nightmares still haunt him, and have haunted him all these years?
Writing about the life of Namdeo Dhasal, critic Dilip Chitre said, “Hardships and distress at an impressionable age is not an easy burden to carry and to shed it after years of conditioning requires superhuman strength of spirit.”
This insight, as I see it, is useful even to understand the life and personality of Rahul Gandhi.
Did Anyone Hold Rahul the Way Priyanka Held Varun?
Usha Kattemane, a Kannada author, recollects the funeral of Indira Gandhi in one of her essays, in which she writes:
“Indira Gandhi’s pyre was set ablaze. Television had just stepped into the households of India. Doordarshan was live telecasting the final journey of the Prime Minister. Priyanka Gandhi was standing close to the pyre along with her brother Rahul Gandhi. A few steps away from there stood her cousin Varun Gandhi, who was very young then to understand the gravity of death. Wonder what thought crossed Priyanka’s mind that she stretched her arms, tugged Varun and held him by her side. I was still a college student then. This scene left a lasting impression on my mind.”
When all the disastrous events took place, Rahul Gandhi was quite young, but not too young to comprehend the gravity of the situation. He was also not adult enough to think through his emotions and make sense of the situation. When the waves shook his inscape, he was at an impressionable age.
When repeated unnatural deaths occurred before him, when people in large numbers spat venom at his mother, and later when he was turned into a joke, did anyone embrace him the way Priyanka embraced Varun? Did anyone make him feel emotionally safe? Did anyone comfort him? If someone did, was it enough and did it fill the void created by the ‘forces of history’ within him?
With such painful events harpooning through his formative years, he always must have had a wounded child within him; a perpetually anxious and unsafe child, feeling unwanted, attacked, and threatened. Did he find the emotional support to reassure himself?
Could anyone deprived of a normal childhood and emotional safety develop leadership qualities? Forget being a leader, wouldn’t walking through a fiery path make it difficult for a person to develop life skills?
In addition to the burden of his past, Rahul Gandhi also has had to carry the burden of political expectations. It seemed as if destiny was laughing at this man, at the cost of his comfort and peace.
A Healed Rahul Gandhi
How does Gandhi manage and balance the shadows of the past and the expectations of the future? By projecting Rahul Gandhi as nothing more than a joke, the current regime and the media, not just devalued him and discredited him but also reduced him to a lesser human in the eyes of Indian citizens. With this, they succeeded in blindfolding the citizens to the human side of Rahul Gandhi and his interiority.
Isn’t the Bharat Jodo Yatra revealing this side of Rahul Gandhi? Isn’t this the real threat that prompted the BJP to place advertisements targeting his image?
Experiencing life’s horrors and unfairness way too early in life and being aware of the tremendous responsibilities placed on one’s shoulder – these are not easy things to live with.
Even with these horrors of the past, Rahul Gandhi never quit the field. He has fallen time and again, and risen up again and again. Even in moments that were very embarrassing, he never looked for an exit door.
Rahul Gandhi has respectfully acknowledged the mistakes made by his party, and even forgiven the murderers of his father. More importantly, he has navigated through tumultuous waves calmly, maintained dignity, and has never turned his back on life. Also, he has shown the maturity to understand the most damaging events of his life in their historical context and has never resorted to retaliation, and has not hinged his politics on revenge.
Probably, in his 50s, Rahul Gandhi has overcome the hurdles and disentangled the knots in his life. The political battle might have turned unpleasant for him, but he has gracefully won the internal battle. If it has taken this long for him to firmly stand on his feet, it speaks of how damaging the experiences of his life must have been. Only time can tell whether this new life of a healed Rahul Gandhi could give the Congress, and this country, a new leader.
(Samvartha Sahil is a writer and translater based out of Manipal, Karnataka. He teaches shot term screenplay writing courses for FTII, Pune, and is the recipient of Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship 2022-23. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)