Narendra Modi and the Gandhis (Rahul and Sonia) share the 'high command' habit. Don't let a regional leader become big lest he becomes a challenge in the future. This is precisely why the BJP and the Congress don't like to declare their chief ministerial candidates in advance, barring a few exceptions.
This modus operandi is how Indira Gandhi destroyed the Congress. The Sonia Gandhi-era has also seen the party lose leaders like YS Jaganmohan Reddy because of this – as he defied the high command's authority and demanded to be the heir of his father YSR Reddy's legacy. Anybody who can command a following of his own is a threat to the high command, in Congress and BJP alike.
To rebuild the Congress – and by extension brand Gandhi – the party will have to invest in regional leaders. That is also the only way it can win back states like Gujarat, which have been lost to the BJP for several election cycles now.
Taking on Rupani
The Congress in Gujarat is benefiting from the BJP's countless troubles, from upset Patels to dissatisfaction over GST. But the Congress has no narrative of its own to offer. A chief ministerial candidate would have been able to create a positive narrative, whereby he would have been able to say to Gujarat's voters, 'This is what I will do for you'. The face would have been the narrative.
The election campaign in Gujarat is all set to be a Modi versus Rahul battle. You don't need to wonder who would win that battle. No matter how much Rahul's stock has risen, it's a long road until he can catch up with Modi.
A contest between a local chief minister face and Vijay Rupani, the BJP's 'lightweight' chief minister, would have been an easier one than a Rahul versus Modi. The BJP would still have tried to make it that, but the Congress' candidate would have been able to say, 'Modi won't be the chief minister. I can be better than Rupani'.
The BJP's main proposition to voters in Gujarat is, 'We have done things to upset you but do you really prefer the Congress?' The very mention of 'Congress' brings to the Gujarati mind various negatives: its alleged Muslim appeasement, the control of Ahmed Patel, bad memories of past Congress regimes in the state, the inability of the Congress' national leadership to revive the party after 2014, the lack of any clear narrative.
A campaign around a chief ministerial candidate would have deflected from all those criticisms anyone would have about the Congress party. Such a campaign would have been able to set the agenda and create a political binary: 'Who's better, our candidate or Rupani?'
Who could it have been?
There are three arguments against having a chief minister candidate. Firstly, that it alienates leaders who don't like him, and belong to rival factions within the party. Secondly, that it alienates those castes and communities who don't like the candidate's caste and community. Lastly, who could it have been anyway?
The Congress party lost 14 MLAs this year, many of whom joined the BJP. Its tallest leader, Shankersinh Vaghela, had made a pitch to be declared the party's face in the elections. The Leader of the Opposition, he wanted to be made the party's state president and its chief ministerial face. Denied the position, he quit the Congress on his 77th birthday. A heavyweight from north Gujarat, a former chief minister in 1996-97, Vaghela was the only face with recognition across the state.
Vaghela is any day a far bigger leader than Rupani. As such, if the Congress had turned Gujarat 2017 into a Vaghela versus Rupani battle, it would have avoided making it a Modi versus directionless Congress one.
But what about the factions who would have refused to work with Vaghela? Of the 60 Congress MLAs, only 13 left with him. His efforts couldn't defeat Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections and his impact in this election is minimal. Isn't all of this proof he didn't deserve to be a chief ministerial candidate? Not really: Vaghela was an asset the party let go.
If not Vaghela, it could have been someone else. By declaring someone the candidate six-eight months in advance, the Congress could have built a campaign around that person, thus creating a profile for him of a challenger against a lightweight incumbent.
With or without a candidate, the Congress faces factionalism anyway. A fourth of the MLAs quit with Vaghela, ten of them joined the BJP, many are Patels. As for caste, the Congress still faces an uphill task pleasing both Patels and OBCs in its ticket distribution.
Declaring a candidate – Vaghela or anyone else – would have meant that he himself would have worked hard to win the support of various factions in the party. The party needs a leader to unite various factions and make them rally around the singular cause of victory. By having no declared leader, the party ensures even greater factionalism, since everybody is busy not letting colleagues rise to the top.
The Congress party not only likes to repeat its mistakes, it refuses to learn even from its successes. Amarinder Singh in Punjab faced similar challenges, and those were overcome. For instance, he openly declared it would be his last campaign, giving other leaders a reason to hope for the future. A similar declaration by 77-year-old Vaghela might have helped.
Had Vaghela lost, the Congress could have protected Rahul by crediting Vaghela with the defeat. Had Vaghela won, the Congress could have given Rahul the credit. Instead, the Congress is again trying to build Rahul in a campaign where defeat is certain.
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Updated Date: Nov 23, 2017 15:01:10 IST