Rahul Gandhi’s alternative approach to leadership

Bharat Bhushan

Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) has become a headache for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not only is it startled by the public response to the BJY north of the Vindhyas, but it can sense that Rahul Gandhi’s emerging leadership style offers a real challenge to that of the BJP’s top leaders.

By refusing to respond to the derogatory images churned out by the BJP’s propaganda machine and going directly to the people, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as someone who is both courageous and likeable. He is courageous because he voices sentiments and ideas most people fear in the prevalent intolerant atmosphere. He is likeable because he offers an alternative of love, kindness and political openness that has almost disappeared from the Indian polity. This is the formidable challenge that the BJP faces from Rahul Gandhi. It is not about winning elections.

The BJP knows how to do that. Hindutva ideology has succeeded in cleaving the voters from their material conditions of life – they may be hungry, unemployed and poorly educated, but they will still be persuaded to vote for the Ram Temple, liberating the birthplace of Lord Krishna or in the name of protecting national security from real and imaginary threats. What the BJP’s leaders do not know is how to solicit people’s love and affection.

No Indian parent would dream of telling their children to emulate any BJP leader, not its Chief Ministers, ministers and legislators and certainly not the saffron-clad sadhus and sadhvis who urge citizens to keep their kitchen knives sharpened to attack infidels. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi is becoming a youth icon – telling them to be unafraid, empathetic, loving, and display grit to achieve their goals. It touches a chord with youngsters when he claims that amongst the purveyors of hate (Nafrat ka bazaar), he has opened a “Mohabbat ki dukaan” (a shop selling love). They compete to take selfies with him, touch him, and hold his hand. As a challenger, he has acquired glamour.

By walking almost 24 km daily, he has demonstrated a youthfulness that belies his 52 years. The BJP would be hard put to find someone among its top leaders who can walk even half that distance every day. Rahul Gandhi does not need to depend on apocryphal tales of working 18 to 20 hours a day to convince people of his dedication to achieving his objectives.

In his simple white T-shirt and khaki jeans, he has challenged a “suit-boot ki sarkar” where the prime minister had to get rid of his monogrammed suit under public pressure. On the morning of December 27, with the temperature plummeting to below 10 degrees Celsius, Rahul Gandhi was captured walking bare feet in his iconic white T-shirt, paying homage to late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his memorial in New Delhi. Contrast this with photos of the BJP’s top leader wrapped up in pashmina shawls and mufflers, paying homage to Vajpayee just two days earlier in similar cold weather conditions.

Other contrasts exist if the relative capacity to bear Delhi’s biting cold seems facetious. Openness and empathy, hugging ordinary people, playfully lifting young children on his shoulders, and walking hand-in-hand with youngsters, the poor and marginalised are other cases in point. They demonstrate that the young Gandhi has been able to establish an unprecedented people connection.

He has also shown humbleness and humility. At a BJY rally at Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, when someone coupled his name with Mahatma Gandhi, he quickly reprimanded him, saying, “This is totally wrong. Don’t take my name with Gandhiji’s. Nobody can take up that position, and there should be no comparison.” He also told the workers to refrain from speaking about his family legacy and what Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi had done for the nation. Contrast this with the statement of Amruta Fadnavis, wife of BJP’s Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis, proclaiming, “We have two ‘Fathers of the nation’. Narendra Modi is the father of New India, and Mahatma Gandhi is the father of the nation of earlier times.” This “one nation, two fathers” theory, as some wags refer to it, has gone unchallenged even from the highest quarters.

Most importantly, Rahul Gandhi has reinforced his political accountability through the number of media interactions he has held — nine up to now during the BJY. He has not shied away from any questions, and as he pointed out with characteristic humour in his latest media interaction — he has never used a teleprompter. He has also never asked for a list of questions to be submitted in advance by journalists. In contrast to the image of sage-like omniscience cultivated by the BJP leadership, he appears bold, open and unafraid of making mistakes.

Through BJY, Rahul Gandhi has, therefore, offered the country a contrasting style of leadership based on openness, empathy, honesty and assertiveness about his basic political beliefs. He has come across as dogged and gritty but devoid of anger and aggression. It is a virtual negation of the qualities that seem to be held at a premium in the Indian polity today – narcissism bolstered by ruthlessness, manipulation and deception.

The unnecessarily aggressive and deeply divisive style of leadership, which has become the hallmark of Hindutva ideologues, depends on and promotes what psychologists call “group think”. It promotes close-mindedness and stereotypes political adversaries as weak or stupid and, at worst, as enemies of the nation. It is not merely a coincidence that those who are critical of the dominant political agenda are jailed under draconian laws or find that false evidence has been planted on their electronic devices.

In contrast to a coercive leadership style, Rahul Gandhi offers a humane, democratic and inclusive alternative. He has turned the criticism of being “entitled” on its head by trying to earn his political spurs. Those thronging to see the self-proclaimed purveyor of love deeply disturb those who feel entitled to lead the nation.