The video clips of Rahul Gandhi doing in a push-ups contest with a girl student and preparing a local dish in Kanyakumari went viral on the social media much to the glee of party managers as even the critics of the former Congress chief appreciated the moves.
Rahul Gandhi’s recent south India push, spending considerable time and energy across Tamil Nadu and Kerala, has cheered the Congress leaders and worried his political rivals.
The significance of the two poll-bound south Indian states for Rahul and the Congress party has a close connection with the 2019 national elections.
Rahul won the Wayanad parliamentary constituency with a record 4.3 lakh votes margin though he lost Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala emerged as the state which contributed the largest number (15) of party members (52) in the Lok Sabha.
Tamil Nadu with eight Lok Sabha seats came second along with the northern state of Punjab where the Congress won an equal number of parliamentary seats.
In 2021, the Congress strategists are banking on the success achieved in the two southern states in 2019.
In Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front hopes to repeat its 2019 success where it bagged 19/20 parliamentary seats while in Tamil Nadu, the grand old party’s alliance with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam hopes to dislodge the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Sensing the BJP was planning to gain ground in Tamil Nadu with help from AIADMK, Rahul launched the Congress campaign on January 15 by attending an event to mark the traditional bull-taming sport, known as Jallikattu, as part of the Pongal festivities.
The former Congress chief used the occasion, attended by DMK chief MK Stalin, to slam the saffron party for trying to suppress the emotions and the language of the Tamil people and vowed that his party would never let that happen.
In Kerala, the Wayanad MP slammed the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front government headed by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan of indulging in corruption, particularly gold smuggling and cited irregularities in state civil service recruitment.
As Rahul’s frequent visits to the two southern states took place, a related plan to present a new version of the leader also unfolded quietly.
The emphasis of Rahul’s image projection this time was not only on a mix of brawn and brains but also tried to showcase him as pro-people.
The leader was physically fit with six-pack abs, was concerned about the livelihoods of communities like fisherfolks, could rub shoulders with fishermen trying to net a good catch, could dive and swim in the sea along with them and share a meal, the campaign projected.
He was equally concerned about issues like education, jobs and trade, had the same regards for either temple priests or Catholic nuns, could shake a leg with folk artistes and preferred to be called Anna (elder brother) rather than Sir by school students, the image makeover highlighted.
The video clips of Rahul doing in a push-ups contest with a girl student and preparing a local dish in Kanyakumari went viral on the social media much to the glee of party managers as even the critics of the former Congress chief appreciated the moves.
On a personal level, Rahul forgiving those allegedly responsible for the assassination of his father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, struck a chord with many locals. The former PM died in a suicide bomb blast at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991 while campaigning for the national elections.
Rahul’s campaign had an immediate impact on the BJP which urged the Election Commission to restrain the former Congress chief in Tamil Nadu.
However, the Congress faces infighting in the Kerala unit, reflected by the sudden resignation of veteran PC Chacko and earlier that of four senior leaders in Wayanad. Dissent was also reported from Palakkad. The Tamil Nadu unit too suffers from infighting between the seniors and the new crop of leaders.
If the Congress is able to come back to power in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it will be a great morale booster to the grand old party, which currently rules only in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and shares power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand.
Tough Road Ahead
Just before the current round of assembly polls, the Congress suffered a setback in Union Territory Puducherry where chief minister V Narayanasamy lost majority and resigned after several party lawmakers shifted loyalty to the BJP, which did not have a single elected member in the previous assembly.
Puducherry is going to polls under President’s rule, where the contest is between the Congress-DMK alliance and the AIADMK-AINRC-BJP grouping.
In another major south Indian state Karnataka, the Congress had managed to stun the BJP by sewing up an alliance with the regional party Janata Dal-Secular with JD-S leader HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister in 2018.
But after 13 months, the Congress-JD-S combine lost the power game to the BJP as some of its lawmakers switched sides with the saffron party.
In another big state in the south Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which was carved out of it in 2014, the Congress had been reduced to the margins and is struggling to regain lost ground. After the Telugu Desam Party, the YSR Congress rules Andhra Pradesh while Telangana Rashtra Samithi holds power in Telangana.
Rahul’s recent projection in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is aimed at garnering electoral benefits in the two poll-bound states, where assembly results would be out on May 2, but the plan is also linked to another key political development that will take place a month later in June.
The Congress is preparing to hold internal polls in June when Rahul Gandhi is widely tipped to become party president once again.
He was elected as Congress chief for the first time in December 2017 but resigned in May 2019 owning responsibility for the party’s poor show in the national elections.
There were hints in 2020 that Rahul Gandhi could be named the new party head again but the move was deferred after a section of the old guard, referred to as the G23, had raised the red flag in August demanding internal polls for all key party posts and a full-time and visible president.
The G23, sort of led by veterans Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, tried to flag dissent again by organizing a get-together in Jammu this month but made quick amendments by saying they were ready to campaign for the party’s victory in the poll-bound states.
Given that interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has relegated herself to the background and Rahul Gandhi is in the forefront, there is little doubt over who will get the top party post in June.
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