Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into active politics has helped the Congress avoid the embarrassment of presenting her elder sibling Rahul as a Hobson’s choice to voters— meaning a ‘take it or leave it’ choice which actually presents no real options at all.
The findings of the Firstpost National Trust Survey suggest Rahul is much less compelling an option when pitted against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the Congress president can take heart that he is head and shoulders above the other options posed to voters—Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and HD Deve Gowda. One–on-one, the Congress would love to portray Rahul as an athlete stretching every sinew, busting his heart and lungs in trying to surge ahead even as supporters cheer him on and excited fans predict a victory in the 2019 race. But unfortunately, Rahul may be on a treadmill going nowhere.
In 2013, when Rahul emerged as a potential contender for the post of prime minister, his ratings were abysmally low compared to Modi’s. Six years later, even with the media buzz around him, the recent victories in Assembly polls, his relentless attacks on Modi, and the perception that he has matured as a leader, his acceptability rating as India’s leader remains at 26.9 per cent, just half that of Modi.
Just last month, the Congress defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. But in these states, where the Congress polled around 40 per cent of the vote, less than 25 per cent of the electorate wants Rahul as PM. In Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu Rahul’s acceptability is higher than Modi’s. But in two of these states, the Congress is barely an option, relegating his popularity into just a theoretical concept that’s unlikely to translate into votes.
The survey data shows that while the Congress’s credibility is rising, trust in Rahul remains low relative to Modi. This raises the possibility that the recent revival of the Congress in the Hindi heartland could be undone by the consistently lower rating of its leader. In the Lok Sabha polls, a large number of those who voted for the Congress may thus return to the BJP because of their apparent lack of enthusiasm to see Rahul lead India (Graph B on page 3).
Rahul’s low rating isn’t the only headache for the Congress. The survey shows his strategy of attacking the PM on issues like demonetisation, corruption and the Goods and Services Tax is not working on the ground. Indians still approve of the PM’s initiatives—even demonetisation has the backing of 66.7 per cent of respondents— and give him credit for India’s economic development.
The survey revalidates the axiom that dominated the 2014 chatter: that Modi is invincible as long as Rahul is the only alternative. It’s a narrative that suits the BJP. Unfortunately for the other opposition parties, they can’t even step into the vacuum. The numbers show the Congress president, to borrow the title of a Chetan Bhagat book, is at least a half-choice. Others in the opposition camp don’t count for much. Mamata Banerjee, the next leader in the queue, is far behind Rahul, at just 4 per cent. Arvind Kejriwal, who once dreamt of being Modi’s nemesis, has faded into oblivion.
But the Opposition also knows the only thing necessary for the triumph of the BJP is for the Congress to do nothing. In 2014, the BJP won 100 out of the 106 seats where it was in a direct fight with the Congress. This high strike rate helped it cross the majority mark on its own. If the BJP repeats this performance in 2019, it would land very close to the majority mark even if the SP-BSP alliance wins a huge chunk of seats in Uttar Pradesh. So, Rahul’s inability to impress voters and inspire trust in his leadership is calamitous not just for the Congress but also for other prime ministerial aspirants.
In this backdrop, Priyanka’s entry into active politics has the potential to save the Congress and help the Opposition with the expedient but simple option of stepping up as an alternative. A sister coming to the rescue of an embattled brother—a contemporary twist to the traditional Indian custom of Raksha Bandhan—may help Modi raise the decibel level on the naamdar vs kaamdar narrative. But with her presence, Priyanka offers the traditional Congress voter averse to seeing her brother as PM, at least, the courtesy of a choice—the freedom to choose another horse to back instead of taking or leaving the one nearest the door in Hobson’s proverbial stable.