Some years ago, when Rahul Gandhi took a train ride in Mumbai, I found myself at dinner with another woman journalist at a friend's home. The younger journalist had been assigned to cover Rahul Gandhi's tour of the city and she was unabashedly ecstatic about her encounter with the Gandhi scion, making no bones about her sentiments.
After briefly bringing us up to date on Gandhi's journey through town – Rahul Gandhi had left chief minister Ashok Chavan stranded as he hopped on to a Mumbai local rather than ride in the vehicles with security, parked at one particular spot for his specific use - and angered Uddhav Thackeray, then the working president of the Shiv Sena, who had been railing on about North Indian immigrants, no end.
As she regaled us with her stories – Rahul Gandhi visited a bank to withdraw money for his train ticket and charmed many employees there by his simplicity - this reporter ended the episode with an effervescent scream of admiration, “I tell you – I fell in love with him today! Oh, his eyes, his hair! He is absolutely shuddh gharguti loni! Shuddh loni!”
We all were in splits at that. Loni in Marathi is butter, so in effect she was describing Rahul Gandhi as pure home-made butter. And she made no bones about that admiration in a subsequent article that even got her trolled by Bhakts.
Almost a decade later during the long drawn out election in the summer of 2019, another female friend called me halfway through the polls. A video of Rahul Gandhi running into his sister at an airport on different campaign trails had gone viral. My friend was impressed by the easy camaraderie and friendly bantering among the siblings. As she chatted, she commented on Rahul Gandhi's refined, civilised campaign comparing it poorly to BJP’s loud, abusive and boorish one. After a few ecstatic comments about how well brought up Rahul Gandhi was, she said enviously, “His mother must be so proud of him!” Then she surprised me by saying “If I had a daughter, I would have wanted him for a son-in-law.”
I recalled Rajiv Gandhi who, as Prime Minister, once had an older woman journalist actually rhapsodise about his dimples to his face. I still remember the then Prime Minister’s shy, embarrassed grin - for the comment was made pretty loudly and at a function full of naval officers all of who turned around to give the pair of them piercing and bemused looks.
The BJP's concerted campaign against him has led to a lot of people on social media see Rahul Gandhi as a sort of bumbling bumpkin. But those who have interacted with him have a different view, and this extends to women in the rural areas as well. Shashikala and Kalawati, widows of farmers who had committed suicide in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, can still not stop talking about him after he visited their homes on a tour of the state.
They tell anybody who cares to listen how his visit to their homes changed their lives, pulling them from the edge of penury and near suicide to enable them to sustain their families with the help that poured in after that visit.
He sat on their cots, drank tea they had made, lent them a sympathetic ear. “Else I would have died long ago," both of them said when reporters caught up with them during one election year. There was an attempt by the BJP to put the women up against the Congress candidate in that constituency but in the end,gratitude overcame their temptation and they stayed loyal to Rahul Gandhi and his party.
Perhaps as he turns 50, Rahul Gandhi should seriously focus more on this constituency.
He appears to have an enduring appeal among women, most of whom believe strength does not lie in being loud, mean or being rude. They place a higher store on compassion and consideration for fellow human beings.
Even his detractors grudgingly concede that Rahul Gandhi has plenty of those two qualities.