Rahul Gandhi is spending a month criss-crossing Uttar Pradesh for the 2017 assembly elections, campaigning across 233 constituencies and travelling 2,500 kilometres. The assembly polls are five months away, but the Congress Vice President is campaigning as if they are to be held next month.
After six days of campaigning, it is increasingly becoming clear that Rahul is trying to do something more urgent than just trying to increase the Congress' seats in the assembly. He's trying an image makeover, although attempts at creating Rahul 2.0 have been made several times in the past.
What is Rahul Gandhi's ideology?
For one whole month Rahul, through his 'Deoria To Dilli Kisan Mahapadyatra', will seek to champion only one cause - farmers. He has only three specific points to make in his rallies: the government should waive farmers' loans, reduce electricity tariffs by half, and increases the minimum support price at which it buys farmers' produce.
So far, Rahul in his speeches, has tended to drift from one subject to another, leaving his audience wondering what his central message was. He would attempt one-liners that would stick, or become the butt of jokes. In his infamous interview with Arnab Goswami before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he kept bringing up women's empowerment when being asked about something else.
The focus on farmers and farmers alone is an attempt to bring coherence to his image. It also seeks to answer the question, 'What does Rahul Gandhi stand for?' and further, 'What is Rahul Gandhi's ideology?'
Well, he is making it clear: his ideology and that of the Congress under him is pro-poor. Period. Centre-left economics is being unapologetically embraced.
The message sits well with what the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance governments did between 2005 and 2012. These included a farm loan waiver in 2009, the food security and guaranteed rural employment schemes, and generous increases in the minimum support price.
By contrast, the Narendra Modi government has been going easy with increases in MSP for fears of runaway inflation. It prefers to give crop insurance rather than loan waivers, and create employment opportunities instead of guaranteed rural employment schemes.
Modi needs to be reminded that there are poor people too, says Rahul, continuing his attempt to portray the BJP government as pro-rich, and himself, pro-poor. Just as 'development' was the word Modi associated himself with, Rahul's buzzword is 'pro-poor'. This is setting the stage not just for the 2017 UP assembly elections, but perhaps also creating the main binary on which the 2019 general elections could be fought.
Modi needs to be reminded there are poor people too, says Rahul, continuing his attempt to portray the BJP government as pro-rich, and himself as pro-poor.
Another problem with Rahul's image is that he is seen as a part-time politician. It is not just his frequent foreign holidays of late, but his general disappearance from the news that is noted. He is often conspicuous by his absence, and then he suddenly appears, making a speech here or there, hopping on and off aeroplanes.
The helicopter in-helicopter out approach of previous elections has been replaced by the padyatra format. Rahul is not trying to address huge gatherings, neither are the speeches the mainstay of the padyatra. Instead, he is going from house to house, temples to dargahs, dhabas and bus stops. By doing so, he is trying to recast himself as an accessible, 24x7 politician. Never before in his 12-year career has Rahul campaigned non-stop for a month.
Projecting the image of a relaxed politician comfortable with the masses, Rahul is seeking to portray Modi as the distant leader unaware of their trials and travails. Modi won't come and have selfies clicked with you, Rahul told voters in Azamgarh, he'd rather get selfies clicked with Barack Obama. He fears his 15 lakh suit will get dirty, Gandhi added. This isn't simply an attack on Modi, but an attempt to show that the Rahul isn't afraid of getting his clothes dirty.
Man with a plan
In his rallies, farmers are given cots to sit on. The idea is to show farmers that the Congress gives them dignity, and is not asking them to sit on the ground. In the process, it also creates good visuals for the media, helping him get more attention.
Funnily, many have been taking the cots home in open theft. The theft of cots made news headlines, ironically helping his yatra get a lot more media attention. It made embarrassing news for the Congress for a day, Rahul turned it around into another political opportunity the next day. When the poor take away khats they are called thieves, he said, but Modi lets Vijay Mallya run away with thousands of crores of rupees.
The idea of cots has the unmistakable imprint of Gandhi's campaign strategist Prashant Kishor, whose Indian Political Action Committee has been planning the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh for months now.
This is in contrast to earlier Congress campaigns, where campaign mostly meant Rahul's big rallies. A well-planned and executed grassroots campaign is an effort to show voters that Rahul and the Congress have a plan, that they are present and active, and very much a factor in the Uttar Pradesh elections.
As always with Rahul, it's never easy to say whether 2.0 has really arrived. One silly comment could feed a hundred 'Pappu' jokes, and a week's disappearance after this yatra could again show this was more an aberration than a graduation. If he manages to sustain this image make-over, it could well be said 'Pappu pass ho gaya'.