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Is Rahul Gandhi attempting a makeover?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2014 Liz Mathew

New Delhi: Popular perception is that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi retreated into a shell after the rout of his party in the April-May general election.

The first 48 hours in the new Lok Sabha proved otherwise. The heir apparent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi has, if anything, become more social than ever.

In the gaze of all, he has been seen engaging lawmakers, mostly from other political parties, including rivals, in long conversations. This is the side of the 43-year-old Gandhi that neither the 14th nor the 15th Lok Sabha ever saw—in both, he was content with occasional participation in the proceedings.

On 5 June, when the Lok Sabha met for the swearing-in of the new members, Gandhi was involved in an extended conversation with Nationalist Congress Party member Supriya Sule. On the second day, when the house unanimously elected senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sumitra Mahajan as the speaker, Gandhi was seen engrossed in an almost two-hour-long conversation with M.B. Rajesh, Communist Party of Marxist MP from Palakkad, Kerala.

He struck up a similar conversation with C.N. Jayadevan of the Communist Party of India on Monday. On the following day, Gandhi was found in animated conversation with his party colleague Deepender Hooda—one of the few Congress MPs who survived the pro-BJP wave in Haryana.

Most of the MPs, like Gandhi, are not very forthcoming on the nature of the long conversations. “We discussed topics ranging from politics, ideologies and the influence of caste and religion on our polity and other contemporary issues. It was a friendly academic conversation, nothing official about it,” said Rajesh.

The visible change in his behaviour has not gone unnoticed. Especially for someone who has an unenviable record of participation in the Lok Sabha; he now turns up in Parliament early and sits through the entire session for the day.

According to data released by PRS Legislative Research, Gandhi’s attendance record, 43%, was one of the poorest in the 15th Lok Sabha. He made three speeches in the Lok Sabha—twice during zero hour and once while participating in the debate ahead of the 22 July 2008 trust vote.

He has also been criticized for his inability to reach out to leaders in his own party and of other political parties.

A senior Left leader once remarked that Gandhi lacks the “knack” of a politician when it comes to making friends outside and inside the political spectrum. Although people who have interacted with him vouch for his sincerity, they claim he lacks confidence.

Some veterans attribute his reticence to the traumatic experiences associated with the 1984 assassination of his grandmother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, by her bodyguards, and the 1991 killing of his father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber.

His mother Sonia Gandhi had tried to dissuade her husband from entering politics. Rahul Gandhi himself likened power to poison in a speech at the Congress conclave in Jaipur in 2013.

His public conduct in the first week of the 16th Lok Sabha suggests that Gandhi may be doing a rethink.

“He looks more pleasant and receptive now. Earlier he used to run away from the House even on those few days when he came to the House,” said an MP who noticed that Gandhi is keen to interact with young leaders across party lines.

Gandhi was also spotted many times in the central hall of Parliament during the last four days. According to the same MP, Gandhi, known to be shy and reserved, was ready for a conversation with anybody who approached him. On Tuesday Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann also went to Gandhi inside the Lok Sabha and was seen talking to him.

Gandhi, who took over as the vice-president of the Congress in January 2013, faced harsh criticism after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2014 general election, in which the party saw its tally of seats drop to a record low of 44 from 206 in the 15th Lok Sabha.

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