Reach for the popcorn: Five reasons why Congress president Rahul Gandhi may be unstoppable by 2019

It was interesting to note the news conference on Monday that followed the Congress Working Committee meeting where mother Sonia Gandhi handed over the crown to son Rahul Gandhi in presence of party courtiers. Randeep Surjewala, the combative spokesperson, was at pains to point out the grand old party's 130-year-old legacy, its role in the freedom movement, its contribution in shaping much of India's history as a modern nation-state. As if we needed reminding.

Elsewhere, senior Congress leader RPN Singh was explaining to CNN-News18 why Rahul Gandhi is now the unquestioned leader to take on Narendra Modi in 2019 and how the party has been well-served by the outgoing president under whom Congress "has won many battles". Truths don't require vociferous proclamations, doubts do.

These bravadoes mask a deep insecurity within Congress which faces its greatest challenge since inception. This isn’t the first time Congress has been in a crisis. But don't let anyone convince you that Sonia faced a similar predicament when she took over the reins two decades ago. A narrative is being peddled that just as an untested Sonia defied all odds to meet the challenge posed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's BJP, Rahul will also finally come of age and meet his destiny in 2019. Sonia grew into the job, so would Rahul. The tale sounds romantic, if stale.

It is easy to see why misty-eyed family retainers find such a possibility alluring.

But it seems a tad far-fetched at this stage because Sonia was an untested leader, Rahul is a proven failure.

Vajpayee's BJP was accommodative, Narendra Modi's BJP is domineering and ascendant. The children of open economy are now adults, and the opening of India's boundaries has put ambition into their veins which cannot be satiated with old style politics. Social media has changed forever the public discourse.

 Reach for the popcorn: Five reasons why Congress president Rahul Gandhi may be unstoppable by 2019

There are good reasons why Rahul Gandhi will still be a prominent figure in Indian politics. PTI

There were challenges galore for Sonia, no doubt, but those were not nearly as big as the ones Rahul faces today. That said, the magnitude of the challenges present a huge opportunity for the Gandhi scion. Whether or not Rahul manages to channel his inner chi and become the champion that his party is convinced he is, will depend on how quickly he grows aware of his strengths and weaknesses. By now, everyone is aware of Rahul Gandhi's weaknesses. Let's go through his strengths.

One, Rahul is insured against failure. It carries a hefty premium. The party pays it. Leaders must prove their mettle or step aside. There may be a certain allowance for failures but no leader in a democracy enjoys a free pass. It is difficult to see Narendra Modi and Amit Shah remain at the helm if BJP is ousted in 2019. Rahul, though, has a license to fail. One suspects even Robert Bruce would have ignored the spider and given up had he suffered so many reverses. The dynast has been handsomely rewarded for each of his miserable failures.

In his first avatar as Congress's shiny new hope, Rahul was the star campaigner in Uttar Pradesh and held extensive rallies in 2007 during the Assembly polls. The media couldn't get enough of him. We were told that the fourth-generation Congress dynast has finally arrived. Mayawati's BSP won 202 of the 403 seats as Congress suffered a crushing defeat. Rahul was appointed as the general secretary soon after.

It was UP again in 2012 when Rahul again jumped into the fray. The Congress general secretary, to quote from Saba Naqvi's piece in Outlook, "addressed 211 rallies, more than one for every two Assembly seats, 18 roadshows in 48 days of campaigning and covered a total distance of 200 km in bus."

The Congress had bagged 22 seats in 2007, it won just six more that year. Akhilesh Yadav was the new star. The Congress went into a chintan shivir and after much chintan, elevated Rahul to vice-president's post in January. Failures are indeed pillars of success, though in Rahul's case in a quirky sort of a way.

Two, Rahul has something which even Modi doesn't — unlimited power without responsibility. While university student union election wins are a result of his charisma, repeated failures in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections are not his fault. The Congress dynast is the perennial nightwatchman — every run is a bonus while dismissals are unexceptional. Nobody expects much from him, and therefore even a modest showing in Gujarat will be interpreted as his resounding success.

This isn't a bad situation to be in, because if the Congress manages to win a few more seats than in 2012 even in defeat, that will lead to drumbeats of "momentum" that may flatten the BJP in 2019. The media will certainly create that impression.

Three, the media factor. A section of the media that is an essential part of the Congress ecosystem might see in Rahul's success its only hope of staying relevant but it is unfair to paint the entire establishment with the same brush. The trouble, however, is that Modi's steady popularity, even after more than three years as the prime minister, has created such a big gap between him and his rivals that building up elections as a grand spectacle has become difficult.

This poses a problem for 24x7 news media that thrives on "news as a spectacle", and therefore this lacuna must be filled with a rhetorical push. We find media indulging in endless packaging and repackaging of a failed brand into some sort of a product that still sells. A decade into the practice, the task of puffing up the dynast to make him appear as a worthwhile challenger to Modi continues with full gusto. One suspects the Gandhi scion isn't likely to complain.

Four, vacuum in Opposition space. With Mayawati rendered to the fringes of obscurity, Akhilesh following suit, Nitish Kumar walking over to the rival camp, Lalu Prasad remaining mired in web of corruption and Arvind Kejriwal losing his voice, Rahul Gandhi has virtually an open field to pit himself as the challenger to Modi. Naveen Patnaik is battling to save his fort and Mamata Banerjee has found it difficult in the past to transcend the borders of West Bengal. Congress may be hobbling, but it still fancies itself as the chief Opposition. Little wonder that Congress was unimpressed with Prashant Kishor's idea of Rahul pitching himself as the chief minister of UP.

Five, it's easier to oppose than defend. The complexity and vastness of India create space for disgruntlement, and Rahul has been vehemently trying to cash in on the collateral damage caused by disruptive reforms. He still doesn't have much to show except clever quips on social media and criticism of Modi, but if he manages to tap into the winter of discontent, that might still be enough.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2017 12:42:27 IST