One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to sense that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is undergoing a metamorphosis. Those who derided him as “Pappu” with a dismissive refrain on their faces have stopped doing so. Surprisingly, this is despite the fact that in the recent Assembly elections, the Congress couldn’t even open its account in Tripura and Nagaland and failed to cobble together a coalition in Meghalaya. The political clout of the Congress Party has been shrinking; there are BJP or BJP-led governments in 22 states now, giving the BJP a pan-India footprint.
But a month is a long time in politics. After forming the government in Tripura and Nagaland, and playing a big role in Meghalaya, witnessing a lotus bloom in the Northeast, the loss in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections in Uttar Pradesh must have come as a rude shock to the BJP. This loss could put a questionmark on the BJP’s prospects for returning with a parliamentary majority in 2019. Combined with the losses in byelections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP has lost six parliamentary seats since 2014. Isn’t it a wake-up call for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo? Do they still look invincible?
Mr Gandhi’s political transformation has been a gradual process, with mixed results. For a decade, he tried to rediscover India like his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru by criss-crossing its length and breadth and apprising himself of the problems of people at the grassroots level and also trying to figure out what ailed the Congress Party.
His performance in an interview with Arnab Goswami in January 2014 was lacklustre. When he tore away the ordinance brought in by UPA-2 while then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was overseas, he came across as an arrogant, immature and irresponsible scion of a leading political family who considered himself above India’s PM. Then the dismal performance of the Congress Party in May 2014 showed beyond doubt that despite his vigorous campaigning he was no match for Narendra Modi. A shrewd and seasoned politician, with indefatigable energy, enviable oratorical skills and tireless campaigning, Mr Modi rode the wave of the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians. He sought votes saying Abki bar Modi Sarkar, and promised Achche Din with jobs, an end to corruption and bringing about an infrastructural revolution.
Mr Gandhi’s two-month-long sabbatical (February-April 2015), when he reportedly visited various monasteries in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, contrary to mocking comments, seems to have helped him discover his inner strength, self-belief, determination and spirit to fight Mr Modi as also convince his followers that the Congress has a chance to bounce back to power in 2019. Only time will tell whether it is merely a fascinating daydream or a likely reality.
The Gujarat elections results (of December 2017), where in spite of a no-holds-barred campaign by Mr Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah and several Union Cabinet ministers, the BJP barely managed a thin majority, was a shot in the arm for Mr Gandhi. He campaigned aggressively with strategic support from young leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur and Jignesh Mewani, and gave the BJP a tough fight.
In terms of the electoral message, the Congress appeared a winner despite its defeat, and the BJP a loser in spite of its victory. It threw up two clear takeaways — one, that the Modi-Shah duo’s citadel could be breached with well-planned, methodical and relentless campaigning, which highlighted the BJP’s failure in fulfilling its grand and alluring promises; and two, a coalition could be stitched between different Opposition parties by harnessing each other’s strengths, and stopping cross-voting. This template, if finetuned and modified according to the prevailing conditions on the ground in each state, and focusing on local issues to the maximum with the help of regional leaders, could significantly enhance the prospects of a Congress-led united Opposition alliance next year.
But what showcased Mr Gandhi’s mark on the global stage was his interaction with US academics and media at top US universities like Berkley and Princeton in September 2017. Unlike his interview with Arnab Goswami, here he was calm, confident, articulate, self-assured, well-informed and disarmingly frank.
With his elevation as Congress president, there is a new robustness and aggressiveness among the young Congress leaders who attack Mr Modi on every possible occasion with the wildest charges. They are also using the social media more professionally and extensively, and trying to create a nationwide perception that the Modi government is very high on promises but very low on delivery; that it has failed miserably in creating jobs, addressing farmers’ distress, mitigating the negative fallout of demonetisation, taking care of the needs of the defence forces, upgrading infrastructure and preventing crony capitalism. They also accuse the NDA government of allowing the likes of Nirav Modi, the main accused in the PNB scam, flee India and also of mishandling relations with neighbours.
In politics, perceptions are, at times, often more important than reality. While BJP spokespersons can dismiss all these charges as rubbish, it will be naive on their part to ignore them as some of them might resonate with voters.
While there are signs of disappointment and disenchantment with the NDA government, and some erosion in PM Modi’s popularity, there isn’t any kind of anti-Modi wave like the anti-Indira wave of 1977, which united the Opposition on the single objective of Indira hatao.
Mr Gandhi needs a new, imaginative narrative to persuade voters to vote for the Congress. Merely accusing Mr Modi and harping on the NDA’s failures won’t help. Besides, Mr Modi has an advantage — he is the unquestioned leader of the BJP while Mr Gandhi isn’t the consensus face of the Opposition. Evidently, Mr Gandhi alone can’t stop Mr Modi in 2019! But if he combines the strategy in Gujarat with the strategy in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, and the Opposition parties form an alliance, they can give the BJP run for its money.
Swallowing their egos, they must embrace the idea of a flexi leadership and flexi agenda. In each state, only the most winnable party should field candidates and all other parties should support it. The agenda and the focus ought to be modified according to the needs of each state.
Mr Modi’s charisma and oratory, Mr Shah’s meticulous planning and strategy and the dedication and discipline of the vast network of the RSS cadre pose a formidable challenge. At present, Mr Gandhi may appear incapable of stopping the NaMo chariot; but he can slow down its march.
Also, a lot can happen between now and 2019, when the general election actually takes place.