In the forthcoming Gujarat state assembly election campaign Rahul Gandhi came across as the proverbial “New and Improved” opposition leader. His new avatar has given a sigh of relief, and a breath of two lungs full of fresh hopeful air to millions of Indians who were desperately looking for alternatives to save the democracy. On this day when Rahul Gandhi is declared President of the 131 year old, Indian National Congress, many might have taken a deep breathe and said, “Everything is not lost. India still has hopes.”

I followed the election campaign by Prime Minister Modi and Rahul Gandhi closely, and gleefully observed how Gandhi has reinvented himself. From his body language to voice modulation to pronunciation; to the calm and comfort with which he attacked Modi in rallies after rallies – Rahul Gandhi is the absolute antithesis of everything that is Modi.

And that makes him such a great threat to Modi and BJP.

Perhaps it is sheer destiny that both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi were born with the exact body types and features that were required if political ideologies were to be personified.

If right wing ideology was to be a human, it would be an old male, hyper masculine, fairly tall with broad shoulders, even broader chest, loud voice, hate and anger oozing out of every pore, along with pride and arrogance. He would be an epitome of phallic power, a sexual force in public imagination, with women and men alike having crushes on him but he will not be sexually active. Because ‘self control’ is a man’s greatest quality. He would live his life by rules and values, morals and standards, and he would be full of contempt for whoever didn’t have the same values. He would be a fundamentalist, autocratic and decisive but nobody would dare question him because he is blindly worshiped as the just and wise patriarch.

On the other hand, if liberal ideology was to be a human, it would be a young gender neutral or gender fluid person. S/he would be young and cheerful, often coming across as too pre-occupied and reluctant to take up big responsibilities. Nobody would be afraid of such a person and the emotions received by her or him would range from love and affection to pity and hate. S/he would be generally liked for being soft spoken, effortless, caring, thoughtful, egalitarian and democratic and yet be criticized for being a failure. But criticism won’t bother her, s/he would take a chill pill every now and then, there would be less things in life to be angry about, less things to take offense from, less things to be afraid of, and more things to do poetry or paint about. Amidst the art though there would be moments when s/he would feel pain and anguish about the way world works, and then a revolution would come.

India saw Rahul Gandhi grow up in full public view. A man who was born to one of world’s most revered political family with immense responsibilities, who saw the brutal assassination of his grandmother and then lost his father at 21, in an even more brutal way. By the time he was in his late 30s, he had quietly entered the Indian Parliament, nobody cheered for him, nobody had any hopes from him. He seemed to be an accidental politician, utterly un-interested, scared even, to get into same war zone that killed his closest people.

So far Gandhi’s story was the first few chapters of a ‘coming of age’ novel. In all coming of age movies or novels, the protagonist does arrive. The rich and spoilt Sids of the world finally do Wake Up. And people love them, when they do. We all love the underdog, the one who, like a Phoenix, rises up to the occasion and saves the day. Perhaps that’s what worked for Rahul Gandhi in the last three to four months.

But let me cut the drama and talk in specifics.

During the entire campaign, Rahul Gandhi’s most significant achievement was to turn Modi’s strongest criticism on its head – the Shehzada suddenly turned into a “boy next door” more connected to common people at grass roots, while Modi was seen as a king sitting on his high horse. Gandhi was seen traveling across the length and breadth of Gujarat in humble kurta and pajama or jeans and T-shirts, sipping tea from local tea stalls, eating at local dhabas, holding meetings with various stake holders. For years on BJP had criticized Gandhi for visiting poor areas for ‘photo opps’ but not this time, because the photos and updates from the field were far too many to be dismissed as singular ‘opportunistic shots’.

Photo: Rahul Gandhi Facebook Page

The second significant achievement was to take political discourse back to issues away from the divisive, fear and hate mongering rhetoric. He targeted unlikely voters, those not in large numbers but capable of shaping opinions, heard their grievances, asked them what there hopes were from the new government, and made promises that appeared genuine on the face of it. He also asked the incumbent government for it’s report card, a practice that seems defunct in BJP’s arrogant politics (BJP has not shown a report card, and not even released a manifesto). Using Twitter hashtag   everyday Gandhi asked questions on Modi’s 22 years of governance. None of these questions were answered by BJP.

His meeting with teachers community and government officials revealed the issue of ‘Fix pay policy’ and contract workers, a policy initiated in 2006 by Modi, protested by various bodies for a long time, and ended only in Jan 2017, after severe criticism from Supreme Court. In the Gujarat model we heard of, this was not mentioned.

To the farmers he reminded again and again how Modi had given Rs. 33,000 crore – the same amount that UPA government spent on implementing MNREGA – to Tata for setting up Tata Nano factory, a business which is now on the verge of being wound up. He asked people if they have seen any Nano car on the road anywhere, to prove the point that the business is flop. He also asked if people have got jobs in the Tata Nano factory and whether they agree that the Rs.33,000 crore could have been put in better use like in education or health sector, both the sector being heavily privatized. Rahul Gandhi exposed Modi’s lack of vision and misplaced priorities.

Again, these were issues we didn’t find in the Great Gujarat Model. As Rahul Gandhi raised these issues, a few surviving somewhat honest media came up with reports that substantiated Gandhi’s claims. In Gujarat’s Detroit, jobs are the main issue reported The Hindu. “…the auto hub has attracted around ₹20,000 crore in investments and approximately 30,000 new jobs have been created, but many of those jobs have been cornered by a migrant workforce, leaving very little for locals,” the report said.

Perhaps, in history of Indian politics, Rahul Gandhi has been a butt of joke and ridicule the most, but suddenly, in his election rallies, it was him who was cracking jokes on none other than Modi, and the audience were laughing and cheering. It was poetic justice for most, and humiliation for Modi, that soon after reports of stand up comedian Shyam Rangeela being asked not to mimic Modi on a TV show, Rahul Gandhi went ahead and mimicked Modi in a Gujarat rally. Gandhi also hijacked Modi’s signature style of coming up with abbreviations for everything, G.S.T was termed Gabbar Singh Tax by Gandhi and janta loved it.

Finally, my personal favorite, Gandhi raised women issues beyond the “women safety” perspective. “Why is Gujarat ranked 3rd in women’s trafficking, 5th in acid attacks and 10th in the rape of minor girls… Why are the two most important cities, Ahmedabad and Surat, ranked among the top 10 in crimes against women in India?” he asked. In his speeches too, every now and then, he would specifically address the women giving them agency. This is in sharp contrast with what BJP did, a silly Islamophobic video using the ‘Hindu women-prey Muslim men-predator’ trope. Such tropes see women as objects of patriarchy, and not as independent woman and full citizens.

In this entire campaign, BJP steered clear of any sort of issue based conversation. It put all energy on bringing Rahul Gandhi down using old and new allegations. The more Gandhi walked towards intelligent, relevant and meaningful political discourse the more Modi grabbed Hindutva, Pakistan, Islamophobia, persecution syndrome, low self esteem, conspiracy theories. Aurangzeb to Babar to Ram Temple everybody featured on Modi’s allegations which went from bizarre to outrageous to down right miserable.

On the last leg of the campaign a tired Modi was heard making allegations, in a broken voice (and broken ego), that Pakistan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Ex PM Man Mohan Singh and a few others are conspiring to make Ahmad Patel Gujarat’s CM. In response, on the last day of the campaign, Gandhi smiled and calmly asked, “Modiji says he has wiped off Congress. Modiji if you have wiped off congress then why 50% of your speech is about Congress?”

The Gujarat election campaign was one of the most entertaining one I’ve ever seen, and trust me, whole of India knows that Rahul Gandhi has won this round,  irrespective of the results.

If not Gujarat, if not 2019, but India looks good by 2024. As Congress Spokesperson Sanjay Jha tweeted, Gandhi is a long distance runner.