The significantly improved performance by his party in the Gujarat Assembly polls presents the newly-anointed Congress president Rahul Gandhi with an interesting dilemma. He managed to snatch a moral victory from the jaws of defeat by dragging the BJP below a hundred seats in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bastion. But he has done so by ceding vital space to three political mavericks from outside the Congress using their energy to charge up his party’s electoral campaign regardless of the risks involved.
Critics of Rahul have mocked him for outsourcing the Congress campaign. They also blame the defeat of party stalwarts such as Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel as a direct consequence of the existing state Congress organisation being asked to step back to accommodate the aspirations of outsiders said to be more connected with different sections of people in Gujarat. Despite such criticism, there is good reason to believe that the Congress president was absolutely right in pursuing an innovative albeit risky strategy of joining hands with leaders not just outside his party but not belonging to even the political mainstream.
Most people forget the pathetic shambles the Congress was in Gujarat barely four months ago. The 61 legislators that the party got elected in the 2012 Assembly polls had been reduced to a mere 44 by August this year after a series of defections and defeats sponsored by the BJP president Amit Shah.
So much so that what was assumed earlier as the assured election of Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, turned into a nail-biting tussle. Although Patel scraped through at the last moment it exposed the fragility of the Gujarat Congress which had become a pale shadow of even what it was after being defeated in the last elections.
So Rahul must be given the credit of turning his back on the jaded and faded Gujarat Congress hierarchy and advisers like Patel to forge a brave new rainbow alliance with leaders representing various caste groups even if it meant humbling himself and the party. This, although failing to bring the Congress a freak victory worked remarkably well, almost doubling the number of seats the party would have won had it fought in conventional Congress battledress.
The problem for Rahul is that while this bold strategy has been a success in Gujarat, can he afford to use a similar ploy in 2018 when a number of key one on one Assembly poll contests with the BJP in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are due? Even more importantly, in the run up to the 2019 national parliamentary polls, how much political space should the Congress cede to other Opposition parties and outside players like the three caste leaders in Gujarat?
Clearly, the moribund leaderless Gujarat Congress is quite different from the party in Karnataka and other states heading for polls next year. The Congress actually rules Karnataka with a powerful Chief Minister S Siddaramaiah who is quite close to Rahul and the party does not lack political heavyweights in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. Rahul would, obviously, have to be far more circumspect in his approach to elections in these states compared to Gujarat where he could afford to ignore the party establishment.
However, there is no reason why the new Congress president should not continue to encourage and engage with aspirational and dynamic young leaders both within and outside the party: A newly acquired attribute of the Gandhi scion which has earned him much praise in recent months.
Compared to the Modi-Shah duo under whose huge intimidating shadow nothing fresh is likely to grow, Rahul and his vastly diminished party is far more appealing to a whole range of people who would like to be more politically relevant. These include not only just up and coming Congress leaders but a variety of activists outside and a procession of NGOs who have been pushed against the wall by policies of the current regime.
Significantly, this is the same reason why an overwhelming majority of Opposition parties have increasingly warmed to Rahul despite the persistent efforts of the ruling party and its media cheerleaders to dub him as a “failed politician”. Chilled by the prospect of single party dominance throwing them out of the Indian political landscape, parties that have spewed venom at the Congress and the Gandhi dynasty no longer do so and have developed a stake in Rahul re-energising the Grand Old Party by the time the Lok Sabha polls comes along. Ironically, the BJP’s muscularity has become a handicap while the more humble Congress with an amiable Rahul at its helm who speaks of love as a political tool is a welcome contrast.
Much would depend on how Rahul builds on this growing goodwill among those hostile to the ruling dispensation. In some ways, a good showing in Gujarat without actually coming to power in the state is perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Congress president. It would have been very difficult for the party to rule a state where the Sangh Parivar has so many strongholds and with the BJP in power at the Centre. The resultant chaos and a possible downfall of the government with carefully engineered defections could have been used to stymie the prospects of the Congress leading the Opposition to battle in the 2019 national polls.
Rahul must use this opportunity to take forward the promise that people have started seeing in him by accommodating their aspirations without losing his own bearing.
Updated Date: Dec 20, 2017 12:17 PM