Reading Rahul Gandhi’s hand

Until a few months ago, a politician could speak of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and expect to be taken seriously. It was an eventuality that seemed both possible and probable. A few days after the Gujarat election results, it would seem that the spectre of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ has been exorcised for the time being.

Four factors

One could discern four factors behind the upswing in the Congress’s fortunes in Gujarat, and these may well constitute the core ingredients for a pan-India revival too. The first is Rahul Gandhi’s comfort level in a leadership role. Never before has he looked as relaxed and confident as he did leading from the front in Gujarat. For long he has been mocked as a bumbling neophyte lacking the commitment necessary for the rigours of electoral politics. But as he travelled across Gujarat, addressing nearly 30 rallies, gone was the diffident dilettante mouthing ghost-written speeches. Instead, what the people saw was a politician who was earnest, did not act like the entitled dynast he was said to be, and was eager to listen. The second is Mr. Gandhi’s capacity for self-effacement, which enabled him to bring together competing political egos for a larger cause. Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are massively popular, ambitious youth leaders representing different constituencies and whose political agendas are often mutually contradictory. What united them under the auspices of the Congress was their readiness to trust Mr. Gandhi. It is difficult to think of another Congress politician who could have pulled off this remarkable social coalition — remarkable because it was based not on a cynical caste calculus but on substantive issues such as employment, educational opportunities, unfair taxation, land rights, and agrarian distress. The third element, unlike the others, is a work in progress: organisational presence on the ground. The Congress mostly managed this by drawing on pre-existing mobilisations such as the Patidar movement. But one instance where it came a cropper was Surat. The textile city had become the epicentre of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anger in Gujarat. But the crowds that turned up for Mr. Patel’s rallies in Surat did not translate into votes. The Congress’s near-absence at the ground level and the BJP’s superiority in booth management and financial firepower made all the difference as the latter swept the city, winning 15 of the 16 seats. The Surat phenomenon is bound to repeat itself unless Mr. Gandhi fixes the rot in the middle and lower rungs of the party and turns them into reliable cogs in the organisational machinery. Last, and most critical to the Congress’s electoral prospects, is the articulation of an alternative politics that is credible, imaginative, and connects with the masses. And it is here that Mr. Gandhi has surprised everyone. His speech after taking over as Congress president offered the clearest glimpse to date into his vision of politics. Though not a full-fledged narrative, the outline suggested by his pronouncements has the potential to serve as an alternative pole of mobilisation and affective investment.

Sets of binaries

By now, the contrast between Mr. Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is apparent to all. In terms of stature, popularity, charisma, and accomplishments, the former is a David up against Goliath. But David may have found a way to make the contrast work in his favour. If Mr. Modi exudes power and authority, Mr. Gandhi personifies a low-key civility. If one evokes admiration and awe, the other has the ability to inspire affection. If one is a great speaker, the other presents himself as a great listener. Interestingly enough, of late Mr. Gandhi has shown a penchant for expanding these sets of binaries in a manner that further sharpens the contrast between himself and Mr. Modi. The binaries invoked in his recent pronouncements include a politics of love versus a politics of anger; brotherhood versus hatred; truth versus falsehood; dialogue versus monologue; listening versus speechifying; arrogance versus humility; pluralism versus uniformity; diversity versus homogeneity; and above all, a politics of kindness versus a politics of fear. His speeches in Gujarat were riffs on these themes interspersed with caustic commentary on the Gujarat model, ‘Vikas’, the Rafale deal, demonetisation, the goods and services tax, and so on. However, he astonished everyone by insisting that though the BJP wanted a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, he did not want a ‘BJP-mukt Bharat’ since the BJP was also an expression of the aspirations of the Indian people. Though he did not agree with their politics, his love, he said, extended to BJP supporters as well. These are shockingly unusual sentiments in the dog-eat-dog world of Indian politics. So much so that even the Nehruvian liberals are bamboozled. After all, what kind of a modern politician talks of love? Love? Who votes for love and kindness in the age of gratuitous social media cruelty? Has he gone crazy? Less puzzling and more unsettling has been his infamous ‘temple run’ in Gujarat. Mr. Gandhi stands accused of conceding political ground to the Hindu Right by highlighting his Hindu identity during the Gujarat campaign. Some have called it ‘soft Hindutva’, citing the strategic use of vermilion on his forehead and his silence on minority issues. This is a misreading, not unexpected from a puritanical streak of liberalism that is susceptible to confusing form with substance. Mr. Gandhi’s temple run needs to be understood in the context of a new political reality: India in 2017 is far more communally polarised than it was in 2009, and Gujarat more so than any other State, with religious identity overriding all else at the time of voting. The Congress has little chance of winning elections unless it reverses this mass ‘Hinduisation’ or neutralises it at election time. Ejecting communal toxins from the body politic is a long-term project, best pursued as a social movement or when the reins of power are at hand. With 2019 not far away, the only viable political option in the short term is neutralisation. Mr. Gandhi seems to have understood this.

Smart secularism

His temple visits, from this perspective, are not ‘soft Hindutva’ but ‘smart secularism’ — one that acknowledges the religious identity of the majority without lapsing into majoritarianism or compromising on the constitutional rights of the minority. This is a tricky tightrope walk, and it remains to be seen how well he keeps his balance. While it is debatable how many extra votes it garnered, one indication of its efficacy was the panic it caused in the BJP ranks. The Congress’s performance in Gujarat has given Mr. Gandhi what he has lacked so far: credibility as a helmsman, which is kind of hard to establish when you have inherited your position at the helm. Second, it has demonstrated that the Congress can take the BJP head-on and win. This rise in the party’s ‘winnability quotient’ would put it on a stronger footing when negotiating alliances. It would also draw back into its fold the minorities in other States who traditionally vote for the strongest secular party. All said and done, by forcefully pitching a politics of love in opposition to a politics of fear, Mr. Gandhi may have just hit upon the nucleus of an alternative narrative that the Congress has been searching for. Their future of Indian democracy may well be decided by a fierce battle between fear and love, fought in the hearts and minds of the Indian voter.


1) Spectre

Meaning: something widely feared as a possible unpleasant or dangerous occurrence.

Example: “the spectre of nuclear holocaust”

Synonyms: Threat, Vision

2) Exorcised

Meaning: To remove the bad effects of a frightening or upsetting event.

Example: It will take a long time to exorcise the memory of the accident.

Synonyms: Remove, Purify

3) Discern

Meaning: Distinguish (someone or something) with difficulty by sight or with the other senses.

Example: “she could faintly discern the shape of a skull”

Synonyms: Perceive, Detect

Antonyms: Overlook, Miss

4) Upswing

Meaning: An increase in strength or quantity; an upward trend.

Example: “an upswing in economic activity”

5) Mocked

Meaning: Tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.

Example: “opposition MPs mocked the government’s decision”

Synonyms: Ridicule, Deride

Antonyms: Friendly, Open

6) Bumbling

Meaning: Move or act in an awkward or confused manner.

Example: “they bumbled around the house”

Synonyms: Blunder, Stumble

Antonyms: Efficient, Expert

7) Neophyte

Meaning: A person who is new to a subject or activity.

Example: “four-day cooking classes are offered to neophytes and experts”

Synonyms: Beginner, Learner

8) Rigours

Meaning: The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

Example: “his analysis is lacking in rigour”

Synonyms: Accuracy, Diligence

Antonyms: Carelessness

9) Diffident

Meaning: Modest or shy because of a lack of self-confidence.

Example: “a diffident youth”

Synonyms: Shy, Modest

Antonyms: Confident, Conceited

10) Dilettante

Meaning: A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

Example: “there is no room for the dilettante in this business”

Synonyms: Amateur, Non-professional

11) Mouthing

Meaning: Say (something dull or unoriginal), especially in a pompous or affected way.

Example: “this clergyman mouths platitudes in breathy, soothing tones”

Synonyms: Utter, Speak

12) Dynast

Meaning: A member of a powerful family, especially a hereditary ruler.

Example: The temples were founded by foreign dynasts.


13) Self-effacement

Meaning: Not making yourself noticeable, or not trying to get the attention of other people.

Example: The captain was typically self-effacing when questioned about the team’s successes, giving credit to the other players.

Synonyms: Modest

14) Auspices

Meaning: With the protection or support of someone or something, especially an organization.

Example: Financial aid is being provided to the country under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund.

Synonyms: Guard, Protection

15) Coalition

Meaning: A temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government.

Example: “a coalition between Liberals and Conservatives”

Synonyms: Alliance, Union

16) Cynical

Meaning: “most residents are cynical about efforts to clean mobsters out of their city”

Example: “most residents are cynical about efforts to clean mobsters out of their city”

Synonyms:  Sceptical, Doubtful

Antonyms: Optimistic, Credulous

17) Agrarian

Meaning: An agrarian place or country makes its money from farming rather than industry.

Example: This part of the country is mainly agrarian.

18) Drawing on

Meaning: To use information or your knowledge of something to help you do something.

Example: His novels draw heavily on his childhood.

19) Epicentre

Meaning: The central point of something, typically a difficult or unpleasant situation.

Example: “the epicentre of labour militancy was the capital itself”

20) Rungs

Meaning: A level in a hierarchical structure, especially a class or career structure.

Example: “we must ensure that the low-skilled do not get trapped on the bottom rung”

21) Cogs

Meaning: Abbreviation for cost of goods sold: the costs directly related to producing goods, rather than overheads (= regular costs, such as rent and heating); copy (someone else’s work) illicitly or without acknowledgement.

Example: The company’s gross profit margin, or sales minus COGS, rose from a year ago.

22) Articulation

Meaning: The action of putting into words an idea or feeling.

Example: “it would involve the articulation of a theory of the just war”

Synonyms: Expression, Assertion

23) Glimpse

Meaning: See or perceive briefly or partially.

Example: “he glimpsed a figure standing in the shade”

Synonyms: Sight, Notice

24) Pronouncements

Meaning: A formal or authoritative announcement or declaration.

Example: “distrust of the pronouncements of politicians was endemic”

Synonyms: Announcement, Proclamation

25) Apparent

Meaning: Seeming real or true, but not necessarily so.

Example: “his apparent lack of concern”

Synonyms: Seeming, Ostensible

Antonyms: Genuine

26) Charisma

Meaning: Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Example: “he has tremendous charisma and stage presence”

Synonyms: Charm, Presence

27) Exudes

Meaning: (of a person) display (an emotion or quality) strongly and openly.

Example: “Sir Thomas exuded goodwill”

Synonyms: Emanate, Radiate

28) Personifies

Meaning: Represent or embody (a quality, concept, etc.) in a physical form; represent (a quality or concept) by a figure in human form.

Example: “the car personified motoring fun for two decades”

Synonyms: Epitomize, Manifest

29) Penchant

Meaning: A strong or habitual liking for something or tendency to do something.

Example: “he has a penchant for adopting stray dogs”

30) Riffs

Meaning: Perform a monologue or spoken improvisation on a particular subject.

Example: “he also riffs on racism and the economy”

31) Interspersed

Meaning: Scatter among or between other things; place here and there.

Example: “deep pools interspersed by shallow shingle banks”

Synonyms: Scatter, Disperse

32) Astonished

Meaning: Surprise or impress (someone) greatly.

Example: “you never fail to astonish me”

Synonyms: Amaze, Astound

33) Dog-eat-dog

Meaning: Used to refer to a situation of fierce competition in which people are willing to harm each other in order to succeed.

Example: “New York is a dog-eat-dog society”

34) Bamboozled

Meaning: Cheat or fool.

Example: “he bamboozled Canada’s largest banks in a massive counterfeit scam”

35) Gratuitous

Meaning: Done without good reason; uncalled for.

Example: “gratuitous violence”

Synonyms: Unjustified, Unprovoked

Antonyms: Paid, Professional

36) Puritanical

Meaning: Believing or involving the belief that it is important to work hard and control yourself, and that pleasure is wrong or unnecessary.

Example: He rebelled against his puritanical upbringing.

Synonyms: Moral, Victorian

Antonyms: Broad-minded

37) Lapsing

Meaning: pass gradually into (an inferior state or condition).

Example: “the country has lapsed into chaos”

Synonyms: Deteriorate, Decline

Antonyms: Improve, Strengthen

38) Tightrope

Meaning: A tightly stretched wire or rope fixed high above the ground, across which skilled people walk, especially in order to entertain others.

Example: One of the acrobats who walked the tightrope at the circus did it blindfolded.

39) Pitching

Meaning: Set up and fix in position; throw roughly or casually.

Example: “we pitched camp for the night”

Synonyms: Erect, Raise

40) Fierce

Meaning: Having or displaying a violent or ferocious aggressiveness; showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity.

Example: “fierce fighting continued throughout the day”

Synonyms: Ferocious, Savage

Antonyms: Gentle, Tame

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