If politics were cricket, Rahul Gandhi would have been like an associate nation that got invited to play in the World Cup.
Watching him campaign for the Congress in the current round of elections gives the feeling that he just doesn't belong there. He seems to be just making up the numbers in a contest meant for the big boys of the league.
Like every minnow at the big stage, Gandhi's survival also depends on how far he goes, how he performs in the current round of elections. If he does well, he may just about get into the big league. If he doesn't, he will go back to where he belongs — in the league of B graders.
Fortunately for Gandhi, this is the best opportunity he has had in years to be part of — if not lead it — a winning team. Due to a combination of factors, the political pitch seems just right for him. And, at least on paper, he has some heavy hitters batting for the Congress.
In Uttar Pradesh, an alliance with the Samajwadi Party has given the Congress unexpected visibility and access to a much wider base of cadre and supporters than it would have imagined. In Punjab, the decline of the SAD-BJP combine and the presence of a local heavyweight, Captain Amarinder Singh, has positioned the Congress as a joint front-runner with the AAP. And in Uttarakhand, the BJP's decision to give tickets to Congress turncoats has turned anti-incumbency on its head, making Harish Rawat a beneficiary of both an undercurrent of sympathy and anger against MLAs who shifted loyalties.
The best-case scenario for the Congress could be a victory for the party in Punjab, Manipur and Uttarakhand, the return of its ally in UP and a hung assembly in Goa. The worst-case scenario could be BJP victories in UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, and a clear majority for the AAP in Punjab. On paper, both the outcomes are possible because of a variety of factors.
This is as good as it gets for Gandhi. This is the best chance he has had in many years to savour something that seems inimical to him — an election victory. But, because this is his best chance to turn around the fortunes of the Congress, it could also be his last.
A loss in UP may not hurt the Congress if it manages to improve its 2012 performance considerably and notch-up a healthy strike rate. But a defeat in Punjab and Manipur would mean its last bastions are being sacked one-by-one and the country is about to become Congress-mukt.
If the AAP wins Punjab, it will certainly become the main opposition party in large swathes of north India. The AAP is already eyeing Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, where elections are due next. A win in Punjab will give it gain momentum and help it encroach anti-BJP ground in these days at the cost of the Congress.
If the BJP wins Manipur, it would mean the Congress has been squeezed out of its pocket borough in the Northeast — Assam, Arunachal are already gone, Meghalaya could be next. In these states, the BJP would replace it as the dominant power against regional rivals.
When the campaign in UP began, Congress leaders were hoping Priyanka Gandhi would step up and gradually replace her brother. But that hope was extinguished completely when both Priyanka and her mother barely stepped out to campaign, leaving the field open for Rahul.
For the Congress cadre and leaders, this is a clear sign that Rahul will run the party and other members of the dynasty will be in the background or on the sidelines. The fine print for the party clearly reads that it will sink or swim with Rahul, there will be no 'Priyanka lao Congress bachao.'
If the Congress loses the elections, the cadre and leaders will have just two choices. Either watch the party slide towards its political death and go down with it. Or, read the death warrant for the GOP and find a new leader or a party.
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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2017 07:30:00 IST