New Delhi: The Congress’s “existential crisis”, as one of the party’s voluble supporters, Jairam Ramesh, said recently, is over. If the party’s campaign in Gujarat (though not in Himachal Pradesh) is any indication, the 132-year-old party has regained its balance. It may not win in either state, but there is little doubt that it will give the BJP a run for its money, especially in Gujarat.

What is more, the person responsible for this sign of recovery is someone who was the butt of jokes on the social media not long ago. Now, all of a sudden, it is clear that he has left his unprepossessing past behind him and is ready to lead the party with greater efficacy than his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who can be held responsible for the Congress’s 2014 defeat by stymieing Manmohan Singh’s pro-market policies with her “socialism”.

The Congress, therefore, is now expected to embark on a new growth path where the new president, Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to have much time for his mother’s crypto-communist friends of the National Advisory Council, the power behind the throne when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister.Even as Rahul sets out on his new role as the party chief, there will be some who will think that he is stepping into shoes that are too large for him. It is these doubts even in his own party which perhaps explains the delay in his anointment. But if these misgivings have been set at rest, the reason is the change for the better in Rahul’s body language, as the spokesman of a party opposed to the Congress conceded, and in his energy levels and articulation.

It is obviously Rahul’s emergence as a formidable challenger which was behind the viciousness of the attacks on him by his opponents, who not only fell back on the familiar stick of dynastic succession to beat him with, but also referred to Aurangzeb, Babur and Alauddin Khilji in their comments on his ascent.

While the branding of an adversary as a Mughal/Muslim may be the worst abuse in the BJP’s lexicon, its use against a person who was once called “Pappu” or an adolescent is also suggestive of a sense of nervousness in the Hindutva camp.

Moreover, the BJP appears to have realized that Rahul is now capable of not only leading the Congress, but also the opposition camp where thereis no one else who can don the mantle of a leader with greater impact than the Congress president – neither Sharad Pawar nor Mamata Banerjee nor Lalu Prasad Yadav nor Akhilesh Yadav.

Even in the Congress, neither of the two chief ministers, Amrinder Singh and Siddaramaiah, has it in them to be the leader of an anti-BJP alliance at the national level. If it is now possible to envisage Rahul in this role, which was not only a few months ago, it is not only because of his emergence as a mature leader who occasionally reveals his humorous side – “unlike Narendra bhai, I am human”, he said recently – but it is also an implicit recognition of his lineage, which marks him out from the other opposition leaders who are all inextricably identified with their respective provinces.

There is little doubt that the longstanding pan-Indian aura of the Nehru-Gandhi family which detaches its members from their provincial background – whether Kashmir or Uttar Pradesh – distinguishes Rahul Gandhi from the other politicians.

In this respect, the Nehru-Gandhis are a quintessential modern “Indian” family, with a cosmopolitan outlook, who are at home anywhere in India, and not tied to any community, let alone caste. Their fluency in English and Hindi also makes them readily acceptable all over the country as does their lack of overt religiosity and the consequent fetishes about diet.

If the Congress can run the BJP close in Gujarat, as some opinion polls indicate, it will mean that the dark clouds which have enveloped the party from before 2014 (it lost four assembly elections in 2013) are lifting.

Irrespective of the results, it is clear that Rahul is in for a long haul to pull the Congress out of its present moribund condition where it is more dependent on the failures of its opponents to succeed than on doing so on its own steam.

Whether Rahul Gandhi has the intellectual acumen to steer the right course between the extremes of populism and neo-liberal reforms will only be known when he enters the deep end of the political swimming pool. So far, he has given few hints about his economic outlook, but if his comment that he wished Manmohan Singh had undertaken something like Narendra Modi’s “make in India” scheme is taken at face value, then it is clear that he is not left-of-centre like his mother. Which means that the former prime minister will regard him as a man after his heart and not only a “darling” of the Congress.

New Delhi: Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi during a press conference at Parliament in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla (PTI12_14_2016_000052B)
Congress  President Rahul Gandhi.