New Delhi: Last week, driving through central Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi took an impromptu roadside break in Farrukhabad—India’s largest potato-growing district. Addressing farmers reeling under the impact of a glut in the potato crop, Gandhi launched into a spiel for more foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail.

Not only was he touching on a subject that has become politically taboo—an overwhelming political consensus forced the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to withdraw a proposal to liberalize FDI in retail—Gandhi was also exhibiting a facet of his personality not witnessed earlier.

Having already taken considerable political risk in deciding to lead his party’s campaign for the state assembly elections due next year, he was showing uncharacteristic panache to publicly back a politically controversial reform measure. Pointing to the rotting crop of potato, he argued that this would never have happened if a retail network backed with a supply chain had been in place.

Political makeover: Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Uttar Pradesh. Analysts say while Gandhi has made a good start, its remains to be seen if the Congress leader is able to convert goodwill into votes. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

His rhetoric seems to be gaining traction with the public.

“Ye to sahi bol rahein hein (he is speaking the truth)," said Premraj, a farmer in Dataganj. “Rahul Gandhi spoke very well. He spoke for us," said Nasreen Mohammed in Bilsi, Shahjahanpur district.

This is in sharp contrast to his campaign for the party in the last state assembly elections in 2007 and also with his leadership during the 15th general election that saw the Congress make a showing that defied predictions, becoming the first party to pick up more than 200 seats since coalition regimes became the norm in 1989. On both occasions, Gandhi’s attempt at mass-contact was to sweep through the state in a motorcade and avoid engaging the electorate. And, even when he did address people at gatherings that were hurriedly wrapped up, it was inevitably from a prepared speech.

The 41-year-old still keeps his notes, but prefers going extempore. The shy persona with a self-declared, back-office role has been replaced by a more aggressive and bolder Gandhi—visibly less averse to taking political risk. The big question, however, is whether this is good enough to do the trick for the Congress in a state where it has been consigned to the status of an also-ran. Initial opinion polls indicate the Congress will improve its standing marginally. But importantly, his aggressive makeover has unsettled BSP chief and UP chief minister Mayawati.

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From being a reluctant politician with a body-language that betrayed diffidence, the Congress scion has emerged as a confident man-of-the-masses. Images that capture the evolution of Rahul Gandhi


The transformation

It is difficult to pin down when the reclusive Congress party general secretary made the change. He still doesn’t interact with the media, preferring strictly off-the-record engagements where journalists are not even permitted to carry mobile phones—ostensibly on security considerations.

Some believe the makeover began in August, when he was, along with three others, put in charge of the party during the five-week absence of party president Sonia Gandhi. Almost immediately, Gandhi was put to the test after UPA’s mishandling of a hunger strike by social activist Anna Hazare for the creation of a Lokpal, an independent authority to investigate corruption in public office. The protest triggered a mini-rebellion across several metros, the epicentre of which was the capital Delhi. As he did with FDI, Gandhi surprised everyone by critiquing the Hazare phenomenon, despite overwhelming support for it among young people in cities. Speaking during zero hour in Parliament, when members raise matters of public importance, he said “individual dictates, no matter how well intentioned, must not weaken the democratic process", before arguing that the Lokpal should be made a constitutional body that’s independent in the manner of the Election Commission of India.

In his recent campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi seems to be taking up from where he left off. Realizing that his oratory skills still lack punch— something that former prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was renowned for— Gandhi prefers to keep the rallies interactive. The Gandhi lineage—which dates back to his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress leader and India’s first prime minister, grandmother Indira Gandhi, and father Rajiv Gandhi—adds to his appeal.

And his youth—in a country where 65% of the population is less than 35 years of age, but has a polity dominated by leaders who are more than twice that—is no doubt an asset.

When he entered active politics in 2004, Gandhi was visibly uncomfortable in his political role. This awkwardness was thrown into relief by sister Priyanka Vadra’s ease with the public and her physical resemblance to Indira Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi’s visits to villages were often unkindly referred to by critics as “discovering India at the age of 40". He was sarcastically dubbed “Yuvraj" (princeling) by opposition leaders, who also accused him of being removed from reality.

But his mass contact programme in the central districts of Uttar Pradesh that covered the Bhimnagar, Budaun, Shahjahanpur, Farrukhabad, Kannauj and Ramaji Nagar (Kanpur Dehat) districts seems to have changed this perception. “For the first time I could see the fire in him. He has changed amazingly. He has learnt the art of delivering speeches in a quite impressive way. He has come far from the cool Rahul to hot Rahul," said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

Lucknow-based journalist Ashutosh Shukla, who has been observing the Amethi member of Parliament since 2004, recalls “how Gandhi always used to sit at the corner of the dais and the Congress leaders had to force him to take a seat at the centre. He has shed his shyness and hesitation," he said after attending a dozen of his public meetings last week.

People who are familiar with the party leadership say Gandhi is no longer afflicted by self-doubt. “He has been quite blunt and open with the state leaders (in Uttar Pradesh). He does not mince words in calling a spade a spade," said a party member from the Uttar Pradesh unit. Recently, at a Pradesh Congress Committee meeting in Lucknow, Gandhi told the local leaders that he would not hesitate to sack them if they failed to deliver.

The gains

Even his harshest critics concede that Gandhi has effected an image makeover. But they argue that this need not necessarily translate into electoral gains in a state that has traditionally been divided along ethnic and caste lines. Initial opinion polls bear this out—the Congress is expected to improve marginally on its 2007 performance, when it won 22 seats in the 403-member assembly.

Riding on the anti-incumbency sentiments against the then ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), BSP won 206 seats and the BJP, 51. The SP managed 97 seats.

“I’m your soldier. I will fight for you whenever it is necessary...because without Uttar Pradesh being developed, the country can’t go forward. I will take the state forward," Gandhi told a 60,000-strong rally in Ramabhai Nagar (Kanpur Dehat).

With election dates yet to be declared, it may be too early to determine how the electorate will vote. Still, at the very least, it is clear that Gandhi’s active campaign across the state has provoked a response—some believe a defensive one—from Mayawati. That is understandable because Gandhi has been targeting his campaign at Dalits, at one time a core constituency of the Congress, and now BSP’s electoral base. Seeking to dial into the aspirations of this community, which is still socially oppressed, he drew a careful connect between role model Dalits and commercial success. Referring to Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Innovation Council, he told a rally in Kanpur that his background had not proved to be an impediment. “He was a Vishwakarma (a carpenter, a low-caste profession). He brought telephones across India. What does it mean? You (a person a belonging to that caste in Uttar Pradesh) can change all of India."

According to Rao, Gandhi has made a good start, but the trick is in getting the Congress party to buy into this promise and motivate its cadres. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating," he said. “We should wait and see how far voters have believed him."

Arguing along similar lines, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, maintained that a judgement on Gandhi’s ability to convert goodwill into electoral votes will have to wait.

“In a way it’s good that he started talking about issues such as FDI and UID (the unique identity programme). But I am still not sure about the big picture... What does he think about identity politics? Even on FDI and Lokpal, there was no follow up," Mehta said. “In the Lokpal issue, the government has virtually given in to Hazare. What’s the point in talking about FDI somewhere else but not in Parliament? The context of his speeches is still mysterious. There is something odd about the timing of his remarks on FDI too. If he genuinely believes that FDI will bring down inflation and help farmers, why is it limited to big cities?"