Opinion: Hello Gandhi, Goodbye Modi?

Once derided as the blundering scion of India's most famous family, Rahul Gandhi hopes to surprise the world in the 2019 elections
Opinion: Hello Gandhi, Goodbye Modi?
Voice of change more than 30,000 supporters filled the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on January 11 to hear Rahul Gandhi speak
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Thu 17 Jan 2019 04:18 PM

Since 2014, India’s political landscape has been dominated by one man: Narendra Modi. In the years since his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power and Modi was ushered into India’s highest office, Indian and foreign observers alike have rarely questioned the party’s dominance. But now – after years of controversy and questionable decisions – Modi’s stranglehold on India may be wavering. Is his time over? Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi, for one, seems to think so.

The fact that the question is now being asked represents a drastic shift from several years ago. As a reporter working for a local newspaper 2015, I was one of tens of thousands who attended Modi’s extravagant and carnival-like rally at Dubai Cricket Stadium. Amid the roar of his adoring supporters who braved the oppressive humidity and heat of August in Dubai to see him, Modi’s message came through loud and clear: that he was not going anywhere anytime soon.

Modi’s image as the strongman of Indian politics, however, has eroded over time – and as Rahul Gandhi tells it, Modi did it to himself. Among the long list of grievances that Gandhi points to is India’s “unbelievably rash” move to demonetise, a murky and ethically questionable deal for French fighter aircraft, mounting unemployment and a wave of religiously motivated intolerance and violence. India, he says, “has an atmosphere that has been spoilt.”

Rahul Gandhi is now the most searched for Indian politician on Google News, and statistics show that he is more likely to be re-tweeted than Modi

Collectively, these conditions have created an opening for Gandhi and couldn’t come at a better time. For years, Modi and his supporters in the BJP have painted him as a spoiled, privileged, undeserving heir to India’s most prominent political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family. “If he was not born into the Gandhi family, he would not even be a village chief,” a prominent Modi ally recently said.

For a time, Gandhi didn’t help his cause much. He was prone to embarrassing blunders – he misspoke, disappeared for long periods of time, forgot important government acronyms, hugged the wrong people and even, famously, was photographed smiling like a Cheshire cat at a funeral.

The Rahul Gandhi that was in Dubai last week is a different man. Confident and serious, he talked tough, looking and sounding the part of a politician deserving of his surname. His political fortunes achieved a surprising boost in December, when the party that he heads swept the BJP from power in three important ‘Hindi Belt’ states that Modi and the BJP had very much dominated.

Part of his success may stem from the fact that Modi possibly miscalculated the effects of his repeated and increasingly personal attacks on Gandhi. These comments have lost their edge. Gandhi now is the most searched for Indian politician on Google News, and statistics show that he is more likely to be re-tweeted than Modi, the undisputed king of India’s political Twittersphere with a whopping 45.1 million followers.

The Rahul Gandhi that was in Dubai last week is a different man. Confident and serious

To be sure, Gandhi still faces an uphill battle in the 2019 General Elections. The BJP still counts a large swathe of India’s population as supporters, many of whom are deeply conservative and unlikely to dispense with their image of Modi as a man of the people. Additionally, the Congress Party has 45 seats in India’s Lok Sabha, compared to the BJP’s 268. Whether or not Gandhi has the political muscle necessary to build a coalition strong enough to overcome these odds will be the ultimate test of his political ability and will.

Politics, however, is a fickle game. If Donald Trump’s rise from a developer and reality TV star to President of the United States has taught us anything, it is that even seemingly unlikely victories can be achieved. Even political newbies, dismissed by many as not having a chance, can make it to the highest office of their countries.

With this in mind, it is time the world asks itself: is the world’s largest democracy set for an abrupt U-turn?

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