New Delhi, April 6: Rahul Gandhi stood at the microphone, his eyes scanning a crowd which at that very venue — a south Delhi resettlement colony — had humiliated him just five months ago.
His face broke into a dimpled smile as his head turned towards Arvinder Singh Lovely, the state Congress chief who had organised the rally and sat on the dais. Then Rahul began his attempt at redemption with a dose of self-deprication.
“Lovelyji, ground chhota kar diya hain aapne (you’ve made the ground smaller),” Rahul said, smiling, his eyes back on his audience.
Some 150m away, clutching bamboo barriers erected to segregate different sections of the rally ground, rickshaw puller Naresh Kumar and his friends looked at each other, almost sheepishly.
Last November, three weeks before December’s elections where the Congress was swept out of Delhi and routed in three other states, it was the crowd at these Virat Cinema grounds in South Delhi’s Dakshinpuri resettlement neighbourhood that delivered the clearest omen of what was to come.
Rahul had arrived three hours later for a rally that was to begin mid-morning, and an angry — and likely hungry — crowd responded by walking away from the grounds as he was to begin to speak. Then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s desperate pleas — urging the crowd to wait for just 10 minutes and hear Rahul out — didn’t work.
On December 8, the Congress won just 8 out of 70 seats in Delhi, a performance that combined with its defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh dispirited the party as it battled allegations of corruption and policy paralysis, and undeniable food price inflation.
The Dakshinpuri humiliation of the Congress’ star campaigner became a metaphor for a growing narrative — that India’s grand old party is staring at a drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections it is fighting under Rahul’s command.
That too was a Sunday like today, Naresh recalled. And Rahul was late today too, though just by an hour — and star politicians across political parties, like filmstars are notorious for keeping audiences waiting much longer.
“But today I respect him much more than I ever did,” Naresh said.
“Dobara thappad khane se sab darte hain, par yeh nahi dara. Isme kuch to hain (Everyone is scared of getting slapped twice, but he didn’t get scared. There’s something in him).”
Listening to the conversation, 26-year-old Rizwan Jauhar nodded.
“That’s why many of us have come today — because our respect for him has grown because of his decision to come back to talk to us, despite what happened the last time.”
Back on the dais, Rahul followed up his comment at Lovely —a half-joking query to find out whether organisers had fenced the grounds smaller to create the image of a packed crowd - with an admission rare in today's politics of chest thumping self-promotion.
“Humse galtiyaan huin, aur char mahine pehle, aapne hame sabak sikhaya (We made mistakes, and four months back, you punished us),” Rahul said. “Par jo vipaksh ke log aaye, vade kar gaye, kya unhone vadon ko nibhaya (But the Opposition that came to power, they made promises, did they deliver on them)?”
But then, as Rahul began enumerating the multiple entitlement-based social programmes the Congress-led UPA government has introduced over the past decade, a repeat of the Congress’ November nightmare began.
These programmes are widely credited with helping the UPA win in 2009, but barely five minutes into Rahul’s speech on Sunday, hundreds began streaming out of the rally grounds.
“Ruk jaiye, ruk jaiye, sun leejiye (Please stop, please stop, please listen),” a party old-timer manning the main entrance tried telling them.
But Naresh and Rizwan had joined the stream exiting the grounds.
“Accha ladka hain, iska bhi time aayega (he’s a good boy, his time too will come),” Naresh said. “Par is bar use sunne ka mood nahi hain (But I’m not in the mood to listen to him this time).”