If Rahul Gandhi learns the lessons of the Gujarat chapter quickly, the Congress might find itself ahead of the BJP in the next round of elections scheduled in 2018.
Among the states going to polls next year is Rajasthan. Here, if trends are an indication, the Congress and the BJP appear set for a tough fight. And if the Congress plays its cards well, this might be a game it could win.
Two days ago, the Congress won a majority of by-elections for local bodies in Rajasthan's cities, towns and villages. Since the by-elections were held in different geographical regions of the state, they can be considered a good indicator of the popular mood. Before this round of by-elections, the Congress did well in by-elections held six months ago, winning a majority of the seats for local bodies.
Rajasthan, like Himachal Pradesh, has been voting for change since 1985. In every election since then, it has voted out the government by a huge margin (the only exception was 2008 when the Congress fell short of majority but managed to form the government by poaching BSP legislators). So, voter behaviour suggests that the Congress can believe its turn has come. And, trends too, point at a shift in the mood.
But the problem with the Congress is that it still doesn't know who will lead the campaign in 2018. On the ground there are two clear rivals — Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot — for the role, leading to confusion, infighting and fears of sabotage. Both these leaders, in spite of a show of bonhomie, are wary of each other. Both are busy undercutting the other for fear of ceding ground.
Rahul must have learnt from the win in Punjab and the loss in Gujarat that when it comes to Assembly polls, there is no substitute for a capable and acceptable regional leader. Since the Congress president invariably loses the battle with Narendra Modi, his party benefits more by fighting state Assembly elections as a contest between two chief ministerial candidates. It invariably fails when this electoral choice is not presented to voters.
So, the Congress president will have to soon decide who will lead the charge in Rajasthan against Vasundhara Raje. Unfortunately for him, the choice is not so simple because of a variety of factors.
Pilot is part of Rahul's inner circle. He was sent to Rajasthan after Gehlot was humiliated in 2013, with the Congress losing almost 90 percent seats in the 200-member Assembly. But the problem with Pilot is that he is not considered a mass leader and his acceptability within the Congress is lower. Also, the caste dynamics do not favour him.
Pilot is a Gurjar. His community is around 5-7 percent of the electorate. Its electoral clout is further diminished by two factors: One, its population is scattered across northeastern districts of the state. Two, the powerful Meenas: Tribals with a stronger presence in the same regions consider them political rivals. So, in a state like Rajasthan where caste plays an important role in politics, presenting a Gurjar as the face of the campaign could become counterproductive for the Congress.
Ironically, Gehlot too is not an easy choice. His Mali community is numerically also insignificant in the state. Also, the powerful Jats, who are 12-14 percent of the electorate, are historically considered disinclined to vote for Gehlot. There is, thus, the possibility of alienating an important chunk of voters by projecting Gehlot as the leader.
The problem with the Congress is that its choice is limited to Pilot and Gehlot. All other leaders either do not have a base or are unacceptable to high command. CP Joshi, who was once considered close to Rahul and thus a front runner, has lost a bit of his clout and aura. He is now considered to be a Gehlot ally in the internal war against Pilot.
If the Congress has to win Rajasthan, Rahul will have to address the leadership question soon. This is important also because the environment in the state is slowly turning toxic because of efforts to polarise the electorate. Cow vigilantes in Mewat (Alwar) and Hindutva warriors in Mewar (Udaipur) have been running amok.
The risk for the Congress in this environment is this: Once the polity is polarised, it will distract attention from the performance of the Raje government. To ensure that the election is a referendum on the Raje government, the Congress needs somebody to step up and counter the communal narrative.
Rahul needs to act fast and decisively. By-elections to two Lok Sabha seats — Alwar and Ajmer — and Mandal Assembly constituency are scheduled to be held soon. If the BJP wins these elections, it would help it create the impression of acceptability and invincibility. Only a united effort by the Congress under a decisive leader can help the Congress win the by-election and set the tone for the battle in 2018.
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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2017 16:06:08 IST