NEW DELHI — In October 2012, Rahul Gandhi said in Chandigarh that seven out of every ten youth in Punjab had a drug problem. It sounded like an outrageous statistic and his claim was met with derision and ridicule. Even the fact that this was probably the first time a national leader had mentioned the subject in public was ignored – the very fact that Rahul had said it made it a legitimate subject for not just online trolling but also media criticism. Once again, the story line was that the young Gandhi family scion was simply not cut out for politics.

Since then of course Punjab's drug problem has found its way into the political discourse, popular culture and journalistic investigation. We don't now contest that it is a severe one, just what is the true extent of it and what is the solution.

Rahul in those days and for a long time could do no right. He was the object of ridicule, the callow and immature Pappu in contrast to the street smart, canny and clever politician Narendra Modi. Whenever Modi spoke of Rahul, it was designed to humiliate. The election campaign in 2014, and many times since, showed the glaring contrast between the two as political players. Even those not inclined towards Modi were dismissive of Rahul, while the online trolls enjoyed making cruel fun of him.

The tables have turned.

Now, the tables have turned. Rahul is in a position where his every utterance – even frivolous ones, like the tweet about his pet dog – seems to be met with great approval. His tour of the United States impressed many skeptics (nothing like endorsement from the West), and now is back drawing huge crowds in India wherever he goes.

At the same time, Modi has come under fire not just from politicians for the problems created by demonetization and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, but even the business community, his greatest supporters, are angry. The PR spins about how both these initiatives have actually achieved a lot – the banishment of black money, reduction in terrorism and fake currency, a switch over to digital currency – have failed in the face of harsh realities on the ground. Small businesses are folding up and people are losing jobs.

The strangest things happen in politics and voters are famously fickle, but it is still worth asking how this reversal came about. That the sheen has worn off Modi after more than three years is understandable; people go by their experience and at the moment many Indians are hurting and more worryingly, have little faith that their lives will get better any time soon. But why is Rahul getting so much traction? Is it just that he is a port in the storm and Indians are ready to try him? Or is it something more? No one is yet saying that he will defeat Modi in 2019 or even in state elections next month in Gujarat, so why bother to invest in him?

One cannot even assume that Rahul's rising popularity and Modi's dipping ratings are connected — and the prime minister still has significant support. But there is no denying that Rahul is now being taken very seriously.

Indeed, the BJP, and especially Modi and Amit Shah, never did not take Rahul seriously. They saw that as long as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul were at the helm, the Congress party would continue to remain a political contender – so, to finish off the Congress, it was imperative to demolish the Gandhis, not just politically but as people.

Rahul Gandhi (front/left) at a rally in February — Photo: Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press via ZUMA

The ‘suit-boot ki sarkar' remark, mocking the prime minister's monogrammed clothes, was the first time any political rival had said something of the kind at a time when Modi was at his peak. It was less than a year after Modi won his stupendous victory and it stung. That jibe became a kind of leitmotif and Modi has done everything in his power since then to show he cares for the common Indian citizen and is not just preoccupied with the issues of big business. His closest supporters have been startled at the populist turn of his policies (though of course in practice it is the humble citizen who has been crushed under them the most).

The point is that Rahul did on occasion have the ability to strike, but the narrative of him being indolent and largely ineffectual was so deeply rooted that nobody was willing to give him a chance. In the absence of any clear signal from his mother and senior party bosses, he was handicapped and did not have the full support of his own party. In addition, he was a poor public speaker who looked even weaker when compared to the bombastic Modi. Congressmen deserted the party in droves and some even blamed him directly for their decision.

But many who met him privately said, pleasantly surprised, that he was bright and well-mannered. They praised his grasp of issues. They expressed astonishment that this side of Rahul was not visible to the general public. But, increasingly, it has been: he's made several good speeches, and the US visit was an opportunity to speak to serious audiences without the ambient noise of the Indian media.

Hitting pay dirt.

Since then, he has been hitting pay dirt and his speeches are being given more coverage than in the past. He comes across as cheerful, relaxed and sharp. He is back to coining phrases like Gabbar Singh Tax, which catch the fancy of social media. In contrast, Modi is sounding defensive and almost desperate – he has been holding public meetings all over the small state of Himachal Pradesh and has many rallies lined up in Gujarat. It hasn't helped that his own party men like Yashwant Sinha are criticising his policies.

It may still not make the crucial difference in Gujarat and the BJP may still form the next government. That will give Modi much-needed breathing space and confidence as he marches towards the 2019 elections. Also, popularity with social media users is one thing, winning elections is another. Most of all, and this is something that Rahul needs to think about, his party is not making its stance clear on crucial issues such as secularism and the rising intolerance in India.

Yet, slowly but surely, the Congress is shuffling back into the game and Rahul, the man who everyone, including his own party, gave up on, is chiefly responsible for that.


See more from World Affairs here