Rahul Gandhi: From underdog to contender, and just in time

New Delhi : The 2018 assembly election is a landmark moment for Congress president Rahul Gandhi. For the first time in his political career, he has led his party to a conclusive victory: a clear majority in one state, a borderline majority in another and a neck and neck battle in the third.

After years of electoral reverses, the revival in the Hindi heartland, where it was near-zero in 2014, comes just in time for Lok Sabha 2019. The halo of invincibility around Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dimmed, even as Rahul has gone from underdog to contender. By leading from the front, he had proved himself a worthy opponent of the BJP even before the results came in.

Rahul’s strategy in the south was flawed and the alliance with the TDP cost the party heavily, resulting in a humiliation at the hands of the TRS. Nor could the party counter anti-incumbency in Mizoram. Also, the Congress could have done even better in Rajasthan, if Ashok Gehlot’s supporters had been accommodated. There is a possibility that Gehlot rather than Sachin Pilot may take oath, as several of his candidates have won as independents.

However, Rahul’s decision to reject the ‘secularism’ issue in favour of ‘soft Hindutva’ and offer massive sops to farmers turned out to be good decisions. Unlike Punjab in 2017, where the Congress was seen to have won in spite of Rahul’s meddling, he can take a large part of the credit for the victory in the Hindi belt.

The biggest loser in the assembly elections is Amit Shah, whose detractors within the party and RSS will now gain strength and lobby for a replacement. This is unlikely before the 2019 polls, however. To be fair to Shah, he had been asked to do a near-impossible job: to beat the double anti-incumbency factor, which included demonetisation, GST, unemployment and farmers’ unrest.

At the same time, the BJP’s state satraps gave a good account of themselves in the face of overwhelming odds. Indeed, Vasundhrara Raje managed to overcome the angst against the Centre to some extent, while Shivraj Singh Chauhan did so more successfully in Madhya Pradesh. They had no counter-arguments to offer, but still managed to give the Congress a strong fight.

The road ahead is a difficult one, however. First, because the trends at the state and national level are usually different. In 2003, the BJP won the Hindi heartland, but lost the centre. In 2008, it won MP and Chhattisgarh, but again lost in Parliament. Likewise, in 1998, the Congress won MP and Rajasthan, but lost the Lok Sabha. Second, it would be wrong to conclude from the assembly election results that rural and small-town India will reject the BJP. The Congress gained as a result of a negative vote in these three states, arising from double anti-incumbency and voter fatigue in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It had nothing to offer by way of alternative vision – in fact, it deployed precisely the same weapons that the BJP used against it in the past, such as promising loan-waivers and higher procurement prices to farmers.

The advantage for the Congress lies in the validation of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Internally, the pro-Priyanka brigade will be silenced and the state satraps will be less likely to indulge in in-fighting. Externally, the Congress will be in a better bargaining position within the mahagathbandhan, but its claim to leadership is compromised by the fact that regional forces have triumphed over the Congress in two states – Telengana and Mizoram.

The convenor of the grand Opposition meeting held one day before the results, N Chandrababu Naidu, was not able to persuade the SP and BSP to attend. Now, sections within the Congress will blame the TDP for the Telengana debacle and urge Rahul to take over the pole position in the mahagathbandhan from Naidu. In the next few months, the Congress will enhance its strength on the ground, as big and small opportunistic netas do a ghar-wapasi along with their workers. If nothing else, the rank-and-file will be revitalised, sensing that they are in with a chance in 2019. Rahul has thrown down the gauntlet, but whether he can best Modi in a face-to-face contest remains to be seen.

Lok Sabha 2019 is an uphill task for both parties. The campaign for Assembly 2018 was centred around economic and governance issues – unemployment, fiscal mismanagement, agrarian crisis and so on, where the BJP is at a disadvantage. Therefore, it will try and change the terrain by introducing new factors. It must also be noted that PM Modi did not lead the campaign this time, leaving most of the work to the chief ministers. The voters in these states, which together account for 66 Lok Sabha seats, have expressed their anger already and may do a U-turn in the general elections. By that time, it will be clear that the Congress cannot fully deliver on the promises that it has made.

The campaign for Lok Sabha 2019 will be different, for three reasons. First, PM Modi will lead the attack and in a presidential-style contest, he will still have the advantage. Second and, more importantly, the Ram Janmabhoomi issue will have gathered force. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has already kicked off the campaign with a successful rally in Delhi. The torch will now be carried across the country (particularly in Uttar Pradesh, to counter anti-incumbency). The BJP may also opt for the legislative route on the Ram Mandir. If a Bill is tabled in Parliament, the Congress will be forced to either oppose it or lose its allies and the minority vote. Third, Modi and the RSS are at their best when they are under attack. Political analysts may assume that Hindu Rashtra (as embodied by Modi) is a dead issue, but Modi is quite capable of re-inventing it, to consolidate the Hindu vote.