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Rahul Gandhi: A Challenger Is Born

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Rahul Gandhi shows he has what it takes

AT A RALLY IN Indore’s Luv Kush Square on November 18th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at his caustic best poking fun at Congress President Rahul Gandhi. He claimed Gandhi’s own partymen don’t take him seriously, referring to the reported disarray in Congress ranks across states where regional leaders had begun to assert themselves as autonomous power centres in a big departure from the heyday of the 133-year-old party. “How can the public take him seriously then?” Modi taunted. Of course, the BJP’s campaign spearhead was only airing a perception that had gained popularity over time, thanks to relentless tirades against the Nehru-Gandhi scion both online and off, portraying him as a leader who wasn’t able to break on through to the other side from being an apprentice in politics. That perception was held far and wide, and the 48-year-old Gandhi himself needed something akin to the escape velocity of Jupiter to break free of it.

Exactly a year since he was chosen Congress President, as if by virtue of a vardaan, a divine blessing, Gandhi awoke on December 11th to news of his party leading the vote-count in state elections held in the heartland of India that included Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP held power. In contrast to earlier elections since Modi came to power at the Centre in 2014,with the exception of Gujarat’s late last year, this was a direct face- off between the BJP and the Congress.

Contrary to widespread notions outside the Congress, Gandhi had led from the front ever since the Gujarat polls (lost to the BJP but not without a fight), and this time around, he had made sure that warring leaders within the party fold would join hands for a common cause, the biggest yet of their careers: to defeat the BJP in what was seen as a last-ditch battle to revive hope in the party as a realistic contender for power in Delhi at a time when the Modi juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Despite the setbacks the ruling party had to face in Bihar and Delhi—as well as Karnataka, where it lost power to a post-poll coalition of the JDS and Congress— it was seen well on course to win a second term in 2019. Commandeered by Modi and ably assisted by BJP chief Amit Shah, the party had been on a rampage, securing one victory after the other through either aggressive electioneering or inorganic tie-ups.

ON DECEMBER 11th, Rahul Gandhi proved that political assumptions of one party’s rise and the other’s decline need not always hold. With perseverance and hard work, he showed all those who had underestimated his leadership abilities that they were doing so at their own risk. There are multiple reasons why Congress doomsayers were wrong. Gandhi had taken on Modi and made his intent clear as early as the Gujarat polls. And then in these state elections, his success in convincing leaders with their own varied interests to stand together—especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—meant that he was emerging as the undisputed leader of both the party’s old guard and young leaders. Notably, except Telangana, his mother Sonia Gandhi did not visit any of the key poll-bound states to campaign. Therefore, this triumph against the odds consolidates his leadership of the Congress and also emboldens the party in states where it remains organisationally robust (Kerala, for instance).

The electoral resurgence of the Congress in the Hindi heartland is like manna from heaven for a party that appeared headed to oblivion. It is also a huge gain in terms of optics for the country’s electorate at large. More importantly, the party now has in its kitty cash-rich states such as Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan ahead of the next year’s General Election, notwithstanding the fact that as a whole, the electoral results in these five states—Mizoram and Telangana included—were a mixed bag for it. The Congress was wiped out in what was until recently its bastion: the Northeast. It has lost in one election after another in this region, and now the loss in Christian-majority Mizoram comes as an embarrassment to a party proud of its secular credentials. The party’s defeat in Telangana could be seen as the outcome of hurriedly created alliances based on an overestimation of the appeal of its ally, the Telugu Desam Party of N Chandrababu Naidu, whose prospects in his own turf, Andhra Pradesh, appear bleak.

Regardless of those disappointments, the Congress has enough cause to cheer. In some states, its top leaders were not all on the same page on a variety of issues. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, while veteran parliamentarian and state Congress chief Kamal Nath, an able fundraiser for the party, was acceptable to former state Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, the latter demurred at the proposal to pitch the young Jyotiraditya Scindia as the party’s candidate for the post of Chief Minister if the party won. Singh vetoed Scindia’s name after the party emerged victorious. This, despite Singh’s record as Chief Minister—before the BJP wrested power 15 years ago—being such that the Congress chief apparently did not want voters reminded of it. According to sources, Singh had been asked by Gandhi not to make any public statements during the course of the campaign, lest the party suffered.

To his credit, Gandhi delegated authority to all three leaders—Nath, Scindia and Singh—in such a way that their interests could not clash during the poll campaign, a decision that many analysts suggest produced favourable results. He also didn’t interfere with the selection of candidates in their respective strongholds in the state.

In Rajasthan, Gandhi’s instructions worked. Though the rivalry between followers of state Congress chief and Sachin Pilot and two-time former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was for all to see, Gandhi warned them both that neither should try playing a hand of one-upmanship during the campaign. This helped. Gehlot, a shrewd politician, didn’t defy that diktat, though he is known for effecting deft political calculations to gain an edge. Anyhow, even if he did try to secure a close verdict so that he would be the first choice of the party high command, he did so in a manner that his actions didn’t hobble the success of the party’s effort to dislodge an unpopular Vasundhara Raje from power in Jaipur.

Despite the setbacks the BJP had to face in Bihar, Delhi and Karnataka, it was seen well on course to win in 2019. Led by Modi and assisted by Amit Shah, the party had been on a rampage, securing successive victories through either aggressive campaigning or a series of tie-ups

Meanwhile, it is fair to conclude that the condescension displayed towards Gandhi by some misguided BJP spokespersons on TV chat shows only ended up earning the Congress chief sympathy as someone who has been the butt of endless ridicule over the years.

Rahul Gandhi was humble in victory. At his first press conference after the results, he said that he would work towards upholding the values of democracy and not to obliterate any rival political entity. The irony in the message was inescapable, as this was a deliberate—and smart—pronouncement in the face of a long-drawn campaign by the ruling BJP to achieve what it called a ‘Congress-free’ India.

Wise posturing alone isn’t enough to attract new allies, but with the Congress having established itself as a credible challenger to the BJP, it will be in a better position to play the main opposition party in the country. This raises its electoral appeal to such voter groups as Muslims, who had lately begun to vote for regional parties that were seen as better equipped to take on the might of the BJP, which has been under criticism for using religious polarisation to pull in votes.

DESPITE THE EUPHORIA within the anti-BJP camp over the Congress wins, chances of an anti-Modi line-up strong enough to overcome the poll apparatus of the ruling combine—aided as it is by cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—may not have brightened as much as the party’s well-wishers seem to think. Opposition unity against the BJP is a difficult proposition for many reasons. Anti-BJP leaders such as Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav may remain reluctant to hold talks with the Congress unless Gandhi’s party is okay to parleys on equal terms. Armed with its three-state triumph, the Congress, which had ruled out a pre-poll alliance in Madhya Pradesh with like-minded, so-called secular parties (as it had done elsewhere in the past) is not much likelier now to attract electoral partners, who typically bargain vehemently for their pound of political flesh.

CONSIDER WHAT MIRO Jakovljevic, a Croatian academic, has to say about political psychiatry, an emerging discipline. In a paper, he notes that the ‘key to diagnosis of the hubris syndrome is a position of substantial power for a certain period of time as a precursor of the syndrome developing. The hubris syndrome is likely to abate once power is lost.’ But then, hubris also tends to reappear as soon as power returns.

There are already signs that a resurgent Congress, accustomed to wielding power on its own, will not want to cede much ground to allies or allow them the bargains they would like.

Some Congress workers argue that Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot are better picks as seasoned politicos to head Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively, than, say, Scindia and Pilot. But questions of a generational shift are bound to arise again and Gandhi will have to use all his persuasion skills to keep trouble at bay within the party

Jakovljevic’s observation on political hubris is also evident in the functioning of the BJP, which has been on a winning spree for a while now. Ever since it swept the Assembly polls of Uttar Pradesh in early 2017, a win scored soon after the demonetisation exercise of November 2016 intended to flush black money out of the economy, the BJP’s top leaders seem to have embarked on election campaigns with the assumption that electorates need no new narratives to vote for it. Yet, it can be argued that while Narendra Modi is still the most popular Indian leader by quite some distance (as all rating polls show), the Hindi heartland setbacks are an embarrassment to him as well as Amit Shah.

Arguments abound that these polls are not a reflection of popular perceptions of Modi, but of local factors. This is truer in the case of Rajasthan than in Madhya Pradesh, or for that matter, Chhattisgarh. Raje presided over a regime that did not pay heed to the aspirations of her party workers, centralising power and incurring the discontent of her own party leaders. The election in this state known for throwing out incumbent governments cannot be seen as a verdict against the Centre. In Madhya Pradesh, some of the lessons could be indicative of wider sentiments. The trading community in particular, which has been a BJP backbone of support for long, was resentful of the Central Government’s scrapping of high-value currency notes, for this initiative dealt a severe blow to the informal sector of India’s economy and pushed many small business into hard times. From Vidhisha to Dewas and Indore, many of BJP’s traditional voters were reluctant to re-elect the party primarily in protest against what they saw as the Centre’s flawed economic policies that had been a burden on not just traders, but also the poor. Not to say there was no disenchantment with legislators who have been in power for decades. Political analysts who Open spoke to in Madhya Pradesh have noted that a worrying trend for any government with a 15-year longevity was that from 2004 to 2018, unemployment grew by 16 per cent and various parts of the state—especially the Bundelkhand region—faced an acute water scarcity. The government also came under attack for the Vyapam entrance-test scam, illegal sand- mining (notably in Bhind), rising incidents of communal crime, and its poor record on women’s safety. The state’s overall sex ratio dropped from 961 females per 1,000 males in 2005-06 to 948 in 2015- 16, significantly lower than India’s overall sex ratio of 991. In a confirmation of local troubles, in Hatpipliya, BJP’s state education minister Deepak Joshi was heckled by voters when he sought their votes. He wasn’t the only BJP minister who had to face an irate crowd. Umashankar Gupta, Rajesh Sonkar and Gaurishankar Shejwar were among the others. Some other legislators had to be rescued as people threw stones at them along their campaign trail. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP was plagued by organisational hiccups as well. Open had reported earlier that Lok Sabha member Rakesh Singh was relatively inexperienced as BJP chief. He took over the post only this April. Earlier, the BJP had a seasoned campaigner in its former state party chief Narendra Singh Tomar, now a Union minister, who had a good rapport with Chouhan. Also, the BJP’s current state organisational secretary Suhas Bhagat pales in comparison with his predecessor Arvind Menon, considered a ‘sharp and ruthless go-getter’ by many state leaders. Their replacements weren’t up to the mark.

INTERESTINGLY, IN Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, large-scale mobilisations of farmers against the state and Central governments also seem to have acted as force multipliers that helped the opposition. The Congress’ stunning return to power in Chhattisgarh is accurately attributed to its promise of waiving farm loans within 10 days of coming to power to millions of people who were unable to service their debts. The BJP government of Raman Singh failed to see the writing on the wall, and the Congress won an emphatic win in a BJP stronghold. It didn’t help either that Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh called the farmer agitation ‘a political drama’, which only added insult to injury.

Hubris often gets its nemesis. But then there are ways that smart leaders cope with new challenges posed by reversals. In that sense, one can expect the BJP-led Central Government of Narendra Modi to come under pressure within to launch populist measures to win back the popularity seen to have been lost. High-profile BJP leaders who showed alacrity in changing tack after the party’s loss in Bihar, helping it recover quickly from the debacle, may now embrace new measures of political expediency with gusto. This might mean that the Government goes slow on passing any legislation aimed at economic reforms.

In an interview to BloombergQuint, psephologist and politician Yogendra Yadav has said he expects that a government unable so far to address the concerns of farmers will now introduce a slew of programmes to woo the rural masses. To be fair to the Government in power, there are some others who argue that it is unlikely that its long-term priorities will be overly influenced by these poll losses because except in Chhattisgarh, the opposition has scored only narrow victories in the Hindi heartland. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, they contend. Yet, the new lease of energy that the Congress has managed to get is worrisome for the BJP in the short term as the country braces for a general election in a few months.

Apart from outgoing chief ministers being blamed for the BJP’s losses in their respective states, it is likely that the central leadership of the party will also come under criticism from dissenting party leaders who may sense an opportunity to air their dissent

Honourable defeats, a BJP leader says, do not make his party anxious as it heads for the Lok Sabha battle next year, especially since unlike other political parties, the BJP is quick to learn and adapt to ground conditions, as it has shown multiple times in the past four years. He rues that the BJP couldn’t take several of its messages to the people in states where the party has been in power for long. But the extent of the party’s defeat was not too large in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. He admits that a combination of factors hurt BJP prospects, including an agitation against the Centre’s restoration of provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in September that antagonised upper castes and OBCs, and the actions of goon squads that were seen as owing allegiance to the ruling party. “The short gap in vote share in MP and Rajasthan between the winner and the runner-up is proof that these elections are not an indication of a major change. Yes, whoever has won has won, but it isn’t anything phenomenal except that the Congress, which had been doing extremely badly, has some scope for relief,” this leader argues. He also regrets that “whimsical” statements were made on TV by “virtually nobodies in the party”.

The ruling party at the Centre has come up with a long set of unofficial reasons to cite for its losses. This includes chief ministers failing to replace underperforming and long-time MLAs and ministers; neglect of farmer distress; sloppy selection of candidates; excessive dependence on the RSS at the grassroots level, and so on, besides the impact of a far more meticulous campaign mounted by its rival than it had for the 2013 assembly and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The fact remains that governmental performance and the functioning of the BJP will come up for review in any election, and oratorical skills and dexterity in booth-level management may be insufficient to overcome any shortcomings. For a party that has consistently improved its tally in the Northeast, which sends 25 members to the Lok Sabha, its footprint of the country’s power map has fallen from a high of 20 to 16 states now. A quick analysis shows that the population of states ruled by the party is now 49 per cent of the country’s total, compared with 70 per cent before this round of elections.

IN THE 2014 General Election, the BJP had made spectacular gains in the three states it has just lost. In Madhya Pradesh, it had won 27 of its 29 Lok Sabha seats; 10 of 11 seats in Chhattisgarh; and all 25 seats in Rajasthan. Back then, the polls were fought in the name of change and a promise to overthrow the hegemony of a political dynasty, with the BJP campaign pitching Modi as the moderniser who would alter the destiny of India and help it acquire superpower status. Almost five years on, whether the same impact can be achieved by a BJP campaign in 2019 seems next to impossible. That these three states, along with Uttar Pradesh, are home to a bellwether electorate in the country is a cause for major concern for the BJP.

Though Shivraj Chouhan has said that only he is to blame for the BJP’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, it is likely that the central leadership of the party, which is known for a highly ‘centralised’ form of working, will also come under criticism from dissenting party leaders who may sense an opportunity to air their dissent. A section of leaders close to Chouhan are of the view that various Central initiatives, especially demonetisation and the roll-out of GST, have antagonised traditional voters of the party. “The implementation of demonetisation was lopsided,” one of them had told Open earlier. This is a sentiment shared by various BJP sympathisers. Raju Kokkar, who runs a cooking-vessel shop at Teen Batti Chauraha of Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, had said that he was unhappy about how little the state government and the Centre had done for traders. “Digitisation and such things are a foregone conclusion whichever government is in power, but demonetisation hit traders very badly, which is why people are contemplating voting differently this time,” he had said before the polls. The sentiments of traders in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were no different. In Madhya Pradesh, where BJP cadres are hardly distinguishable for those of the RSS, the party’s defeat by a whisker has come as a rude shock for party workers who Open spoke to. The BJP won 0.1 per cent more votes (41 per cent) overall than the Congress did (40.9 per cent), though the former won only 109 seats and the latter bagged 114. In Rajasthan, too, the percentage gap was narrow, with the Congress winning 39.3 per cent of all votes polled (which translated into 99 seats) and the BJP 38.8 per cent (winning the party just 73 seats).

WHILE THE CONGRESS is on a recovery path with Rahul Gandhi displaying skills that people had put past him, the Grand Old Party faces numerous challenges as it works out a plan to challenge the BJP at the Centre next year. The biggest of these would be the transformation of the face-off into a presidential style election, with Rahul Gandhi up against Narendra Modi person to person. The Congress chief’s popularity ratings are nowhere near those of the Prime Minister, before whose electioneering almost everybody else pales. As a leader with a firm resolve who can think on his feet, Modi has an advantage in such a contest.

EVEN IF THE Congress signals that this is a fight against the BJP mounted by ‘the rest’, there are many opposition leaders who remain suspicious of what Rahul Gandhi’s party intends. Coalition building has not been a Congress strength, and the impression persists that it likes to work only with weak partners that do not question its decisions. The Left and various north Indian regional parties are averse to any such unequal collaboration. Ideological differences could also play spoilsport for the Congress, as witnessed during the term of UPA- 1, when the Left parted ways with it on account of what it called ‘ideological incompatibility” (over the India- US civil nuclear deal).

The Congress also needs to refurbish its organisation across the country, currently driven by factionalism that would hurt its chances. Compared with the BJP, the Congress has been more vulnerable to internecine wranglings. The continued reliance of the Congress on its older leaders may fetch a few immediate benefits—such as a temporary pause in internal feuds—but in the long run, the party is likely to find that success cannot be sustained without fresh and energetic leadership at various levels. Some party watchers argue that considering the impending General Election, the likes of Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot are better picks as seasoned politicos to head Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively, than, say, Scindia and Pilot. But questions of a generational shift are bound to arise again at some point and Gandhi will have to use all his skills of persuasion to keep trouble at bay within the party. That the party’s top leadership found it tough to declare its chief ministers for Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan even 48 hours after the results came out exposes this tension and could even be an indication of things to come.

For the moment, the mood in the Congress is upbeat. And with Rahul Gandhi showing signs of retaining its lost grip over the party organisation, he is beginning to look like a genuine contender for the country’s top post. But his greatest victory seems to be on the personal rather than professional front. After all, he has proved all his detractors wrong.

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