Rahul Gandhi was just 21 when his father Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991. Being the eldest child of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, a political spotlight beckoned — a public eye that his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi would have none of at the time.
Despite being on the fringes, Rahul Gandhi’s rise as Congress President is remarkable. Especially, the Rahul Gandhi 2.0 avatar which is tech-savvy and even is giving Prime Minister Narendra Modi a run for the money on social media.
In the early 1990s, Rahul Gandhi went to the United States to study economics and later worked in London before returning to work in Mumbai in 2002.
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India and the Congress still saw him as a shy and reluctant youngster who preferred cricket and outdoors instead of the rough and tumble of politics. Political pundits saw Priyanka as more charismatic and tipped more likely to take over the mantle of the Congress party.
Two years later, he took the political plunge in 2004, contesting the Lok Sabha election from the bastion of Amethi that his father held.
By 2007, Rahul had already become Congress’ star campaigners for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. But, the party managed to bag only 22 out of 403 seats in the state.
That same year, he became Congress General Secretary and took charge of the party’s youth unit and the affiliated student’s union, National Students’ Union of India (NSUI).
Through the last decade, Rahul’s tryst with politics has been marked by a push for prominence that often seemed deliberate and unreal. He cited his meeting with Kalawati, the widow of a farmer from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, in an bid to shake off the ‘Yuvraj’ tag.
Rahul, still perceived by the electorate as a young leader, addressed a punishing 125 rallies during the 2009 Lok Sabha election and spearheaded Congress’ campaign in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh. His efforts helped improve Congress’ tally from a single-digit to 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
In 2011, Rahul led a solidarity march for farmers agitating for better land compensation which showed a combative facet of his personality.
He also led the party’s campaigned relentlessly during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in 2012. But his effort did not yield results as the country’s most populous state handed him a humiliating defeat.
At the turn of the decade, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which successfully won two successive general elections, was on a backfoot. The coalition battled with corruption cases and public dissatisfaction. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade which moved masses across India in 2011, too dented Rahul’s image. The ‘Yuvraj’ was seen as a helpless pawn in the political scheme of things.
In a parliamentary debate, he famously stated that Lokpal, as an institution cannot alone be a substitute for a comprehensive anti-corruption code. The statement did not go down well with the public, which saw it as his disapproval for the bill.
The Nirbhaya rape protests which gripped the nation in 2012 took Rahul’s seemingly apathetic aura to new lows. He had even refused to meet protestors gathered in Lutyens’ Delhi. A placard at the rally — ‘Saare yuva yahan hain, Rahul Gandhi kahan hain?’ — summed up the situation.
Hurdles and image doubts aside, Rahul Gandhi was anointed Congress Vice-President a year before the 2014 general election. Addressing the party cadre at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir, he delivered an emotional speech to his fellow party men.
“My mother came to my room and cried… because she understands that power is poison,” Rahul said as he took over his new role.
However, a few months later, Rahul was credited with the party’s victory in Karnataka assembly polls.
In a dramatic move in September 2013, Rahul Gandhi tore apart the Ordinance that would have saved convicted legislators, in front of the media. It was an act that left both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress red-faced.
Three months later, Congress party was routed in assembly polls in four states — an early sign of things to come.
The worst for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress followed in the 2014 general elections. He squared off against Narendra Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate and lost miserably. The Congress rustled up its lowest tally ever with a paltry 44 seats in the 2014 general election.
Few months later, the party faced avalanche of losses in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir, followed by Assam and Kerala.
Over the last three years, Congress has been steadily wiped off the map with heavy defeats in one Assembly election after another.
In 2017, Rahul Gandhi teamed up with incumbent Samajwadi Party counterpart, Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. The duo called themselves ‘UP ke ladke’, but ended up facing almost a complete rout in the state.
The party lost in Uttarakhand and failed to form governments in Goa and Manipur. The win in Punjab came as a face-saver, though it was Captain Amarinder Singh’s charisma that was acclaimed.
The 47-year-old found his mojo, new set of weapons to attack the ruling BJP and has come out of the ‘reluctant prince’ syndrome. Rahul Gandhi is all set to enter the next phase of his political life.
His witty social media banter has been backed up by calculated digs at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has also been elevated as the Congress President. But, questions remain as to how Rahul Gandhi 2.0 can deliver for a rudderless and dispirited Congress against firebrand Modi and the Modi wave as the 2019 Lok Sabha election beckons