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India may be ready for Rahul Gandhi, but is Rahul Gandhi ready for India?

“I don’t know about you,” said a friend, “but I am ready for Rahul Gandhi.”

What he meant was that after Covid second wave he was ready to try even Rahul Gandhi as India’s Prime Minister.

Since Rahul Gandhi joined politics in 2004, I have never heard anyone say this. I have never heard anyone hope, wish, pray or even toy with the idea of Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi.

As a compulsive election tourist, I travel in Indian elections in different states, just talking to people. It’s my way of knowing my country, seeing corners I never would.

And I have never heard anyone wish for Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi. Not even the Congress worker. Not even the last Congress voter standing in Allahabad, cradle of the Nehru-Gandhis. Not even the Muslim voter who fervently hopes the Congress wins the next election.

So for even one person to say he’s ready for Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi is a breakthrough moment in Indian politics.

What has changed for Rahul Gandhi is that for the first time he has demonstrated he could do good for the people of India. We are talking here about his regular warnings on Covid in India, and how he’s been right each time, how he’s been ahead of the government each time.

Be it the first wave or second, be it vaccination or testing, be it his critique of the lockdown last year or the need for one right now, Rahul Gandhi has been on the money.

This he has done mostly through Twitter but not just. For example, there was a Zoom press conference last year where he made the point about how the government needed to be strategic in its lockdown and strategies.

The BJP’s social media propaganda made a video of how many times he had used the word ‘strategic’ and ridiculed him. But with every passing day we have seen how right Rahul Gandhi was: if we had been strategic rather than knee-jerk, we would have been better prepared for the second wave.

If not Rahul, then who?

It has been a pipe-dream of the Congress party to see the incumbent government make mistakes and become unpopular, so that the people of India automatically elect the Congress back into power.

Since there are only two parties with a pan-India presence, we can have either a BJP-led government or a Congress-led government. It’s not as if the people of India have a broad menu to choose from. This is how the Congress has been written off and yet returned to power, sometimes to its own surprise.

So if voters want change, they will have to resign themselves to the idea of Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi. If not Rahul then who? We’re not going to have a Macron. Not one of 1.3 billion Indians has the guts or talent to think of capturing national imagination.

When the pandemic began last year, Orhan Pamuk, the light of Istanbul, had been researching past pandemics for a new novel. Writing in The New York Times, he observed what her had learnt about pandemics and political change: “The history and literature of plagues shows us that the intensity of the suffering, of the fear of death, of the metaphysical dread, and of the sense of the uncanny experienced by the stricken populace will also determine the depth of their anger and political discontent.”

We’ve already seen the pandemic take down Donald Trump, and as of today, the pandemic is bad enough in India to speculate of the possibility of similar political change here.

God helps those…

But the Congress party and its de facto President, Rahul Gandhi, would be making a mistake in just counting on such change happening on its own. Even if India gets ready for Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi will have to demonstrate he is ready for India.

Donald Trump didn’t just lose on his own. The Democratic Party worked very hard to win. Voters want to see if Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party want to win.

If the Congress party and its leadership keeps sitting calmly, occasionally campaigning in state elections and conducting press conferences, then the BJP has enough time and space to make up for the disaster that is Covid Second Wave. For example, the BJP could start distributing freebies and giving out cash transfers to make people forget the suffering of the second wave.

There are three political milestones ahead of us: Uttar Pradesh assembly elections 8 months from now in February 2022; the Gujarat assembly elections 18 months from now in November 2022; and the national general elections in May 2024.

Unless the opposition can win at least one of the first two, the third one is not going to be easy.

A three year plan

Since the Congress party is going to win somewhere around zero seats in Uttar Pradesh, it should just exit the state and support the Samajwadi Party there on every seat.

Rahul Gandhi should formally become party president and commits himself to working 16 hours a day for national-level agenda setting for the Congress party, doing non-stop campaigns of a national nature so that nobody can say, ‘Rahul Gandhi is doing nothing’.

He should completely extricate himself from state elections, because they can be a distraction from setting a national narrative. He should make his sister Priyanka Gandhi in-charge of all state elections, including Gujarat.

Most of all, he should stop disappearing from the public eye for days. He should be seen to be putting in hours of work every day. The people of India are not going to give the keys of power to anyone without them earning it.

Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980 seemed miraculous given how she had been summarily rejected in 1977 by voters thanks to the Emergency. In the intervening three years, she worked hard to gain the trust of the people. The next three years are just such a test for Rahul Gandhi.

To begin with, how about give up on the regular holidays? Becoming prime minister is surely a bigger thing than the sights and sounds of Europe.