Rahul Gandhi took some time took off from his hectic campaigning schedule to address a packed press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday.
The Gandhi scion, widely touted to be the prime-minister-in-waiting, answered almost each question clearly and painstakingly.
While there was nothing new or startling in his answers, they conveyed the sincerity of an earnest young man who is neither shrill nor loud. Though he sounded like a political novice possessing a fair degree of clarity on certain issues, the confidence in his speech and gait was the result of canvassing across the political landscape of the country.
After the press conference, a Congress activist who has been critical of the young Gandhi, observed, "Pappu paas ho gaya". He admitted that he was impressed by Gandhi's manner of speaking, adding, "It looks like he is on the way to becoming a political leader."
The political buzz so far indicated that Rahul, who is referred to as 'Pappu' by both Congress activists and journalists, was detached and disinterested in the Congress' affairs. There has been a perceptibly stronger demand for the more politically savvy, articulate and charismatic Priyanka, who is seen as a Gandhi who can take the Congress to greater heights. But she has made it clear that politics is not her immediate priority, and disconsolate Congressmen have started looking at Rahul as the next best alternative.
But not many in the Congress, or outside it, know much about Rahul, the leader chosen by his mother, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, to carry forward the family legacy.
The ease and confidence with which Rahul spoke on issues which, according to him, are central to national politics, revealed a balanced leader who is not afraid to call a spade
a spade, even if it does not help the Congress' cause in the middle of Parliamentary elections.
Rahul revealed that he was 'emotional' about his current relationship with the Youth Congress and the National Students' Union of India. He made it clear that any attempt to downsize or downplay their role in building up the Congress party would be construed as an insult to the Youth Congress.
But there is more to Rahul's press conference than meets the eye.
Before holding the press conference held at Hotel Ashoka, the Gandhi scion had two sets of limited interactions, behind closed doors, with journalists from English newspapers. On both occasions, he ignored the representatives from the vernacular press, which help in the formation of public opinion in far flung areas of the country.
When the concerned journalists created a furore over the 'elitist discrimination', the press meet was thrown open to the entire media.
Gandhi also contradicted his own belief -- that the goals of growth ,development and poverty eradication can be achieved only by political parties which have achieved intra-party democracy -- when he refused to answer questions about the lack of a democratic structure within the Congress.
When it was pointed out that there were no elections to important bodies like the Congress Working Committee and there was no accountability on the part of senior leaders and chief mininisters, Gandhi ignored the query and launched an eulogy on the work being done by the Youth Congress and the NSUI in Punjab and Gujarat, where he had sought to democratise the organisation and hold elections.
Incidentally, former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh's grandson was 'elected' as the leader through this 'democratic process'. And there is no information on what happened to the other aspirants to that position.
But Gandhi still comes across as a young man who does not believe in living in the past. He believes that it is important to sustain the nine per cent growth rate of Dr Manmohan Singh so that the poor and the deprived can benefit from the social sector schemes and development projects.
In spite of the fact the Congress might need to drum up the Left's support after the election to form the central government, Gandhi made it clear that he believed that the Left was an old party with old ideas.
He cited their view on the India-United States nuclear agreement as an example, claiming that it revealed their outdated thinking.
Gandhi pointed out that the Left wanted to help the poor and backed the 'Rozgar yojana scheme' of the Centre but was against the nine per cent growth rate at the same time.
"So where do they think the money will come from to fund the schemes for the poor," he
asked, saying that he had basic differences with them in terms of ideology and the approach towards economic liberalisation.
At the risk of further alienating the Left parties, he doggedly and persistently continued to back Dr Singh as the best prime minister the country can have.
Rahul also expressed confidence that after the election, the Left will support the Congress and Dr Singh, adding, "The Left will support a Dr Manmohan Singh government. We will deliver him as the prime minister".
But Rahul, a product of the secular politics and thinking of the Nehru-Gandhi family, stressed that there could be no meeting ground with the Bharatiya Janata Party, as both their economic and political ideologies would never match. He brought up the 'massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, the killings of Christians in Orissa and the anti-minority vote bank politics of the BJP," to substantiate his point.
But Rahul, the fledgling politician, appears to have come of age to some extent. Waging a psychological warfare on the BJP, he asserted that the BJP has given up the fight midway through the elections. The National Democratic Alliance exists only in the mind of the BJP, declared Gandhi, adding that evidence shows that there is no NDA in states like Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and other places.
He added that NDA allies like Janata Dal United leader Nitish Kumar and AIADMK supreme Jayalalithaa were keeping their post-poll options open
Gandhi refused to comment on speculations on whether the Congress would prefer to sit in the Opposition rather than forming a fractured government at the Centre. He asserted that the Congress would improve its electoral position, as there had been a positive feeling wherever he had campaigned, and the United Progressive Alliance's allies continued to support the party.
"The sense on the ground is that we are not going to sit in the opposition," he said.
The young Gandhi clearly believes that the party with the largest number of seats has the right to lead the government. He said that if Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar or the Left Front won the highest number of seats, they were welcome to form the government and he would be happy to support them.
It seems that Rahul Gandhi's stamp would be visible on the decisions and policies of the Congress party in the days, months and years ahead. He said he would continue to revive the youth congress and would not take up a ministerial berth unless forced to do so by Dr Singh or his mother.
He has gained in maturity and confidence to take on the entire national media and in the days to come, the nation would see much more of Rahul, who came across as a stubborn yet development-oriented leader. It's a combination Congressmen might find difficult to handle as they learn to live with a new Gandhi on the block.