Rahul Gandhi sets ball rolling for 2019 Lok Sabha election, but Congress first needs to end factions, fix alliances

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has unambiguously kicked off his party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections with back-to-back meetings in Rajasthan and Karnataka. On Monday, he addressed a fair gathering in Bidar district at which he returned to the themes that seem set to become part of the signature of the Congress campaign.

The Rafale deal dominated the Congress president’s speech, but the issues of unemployment, farmer suicides, broken election promises and the Muzaffarpur shelter home rapes also figured prominently, as they did in Gandhi’s speech at Jaipur last Saturday. But before addressing the substance of what he said, some preliminary observations would be in order.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi addresses during a public rally, in Bidar on Monday, 13 August, 2018. PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi addresses during a public rally, in Bidar on Monday, 13 August, 2018. PTI

First, the Congress has not been its usually procrastinatory self in that it has begun its campaign early to match the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) fast-off-the-blocks approach. But this alacrity has been unevenly evidenced. While it needed to seriously start moving in the three states in which elections are due a few months from now, it has inexplicably shifted its focus to Karnataka and Telangana, where Gandhi is rounding off his southern foray.

After the meeting in Jaipur, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh would have been obvious places to target. Reports, however, seem to suggest that the party is once again being dogged by familiar problems of faction and disunity in Madhya Pradesh, while in Chhattisgarh it has failed to get its re-organisation properly off the ground.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a greater sense of purpose and freshness in Congress ranks, much of it due to leadership initiatives provided by a seemingly revitalised leader. Gandhi has also shed some of his earlier diffidence. The attack centring on the Rafale issue has been the most aggressive campaign we have seen the Congress president and his party engage in for some time.

Gandhi has been pointed in his attacks: he has as good as accused defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman of being less than truthful in her claim that the government is being prevented from coming clean on the price of the Rafale craft by a confidentiality clause, citing a conversation with French president Emmanuel Macron; and, in Bidar, most pointedly, he has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being personally involved in corruption.

The fact that the government and the BJP have seemed less than forthcoming in clearing the air has given the Congress president’s accusations some heft though it would be way too premature to suggest, as some have done, that Rafale could be the Bofors of these times. As yet, the Congress has shown the public no smoking gun, though his cause has been strengthened by the accusations aired by former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. How productive this political line will prove is unclear, but, from the Congress party’s point of view, at least it gives it an air of purposiveness.

At the same time, the Congress has kept up its attack on the bread-and-butter issues: unemployment, agrarian distress, vigilantism, demonetisation, the government’s failure to make any headway on black money and credit bank accounts with Rs 15 lakh, and Dalit issues. Gandhi has claimed in Bidar that in the few months that the Karnataka government has been in power it had far outstripped the Central government in providing farm loan waivers and increasing minimum support prices.

The problem in all this is that the Congress has not yet been able to offer to the public a coherent vision of what it is going to do if it is voted into office. By now it has become clear that voters are not easily swayed by negative campaigns alone. They must be accompanied by alternative blueprints.

The other problem is that the Congress has not yet been able to convincingly articulate its position on alliances. It has said recently that the leadership question will remain open should the opposition be able to put up a united front, but it needs to be much more positive in playing a leading role in welding together such a front.

Gandhi also needs to get cracking on the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh campaigns. To do this he has to deal with the problem of factionalism. In Madhya Pradesh, especially, the party has long been plagued by the problem of having too many leaders and too few foot soldiers. The Congress must also convince his colleagues that the party has to stitch up alliances in all three states where elections are due, whether or not it perceives it can do without them in a particular one. The larger issue of making coalitions work cannot be premised on a policy of cherry-picking.

Finally, the well-attended spectacle put up by the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, coming as it did against the backdrop of some coalitional strain, may conceivably have sent out a more cohesive message had the party expanded its ambit to include its ally, the Janata Dal (Secular). That’s just the kind of imagination the Congress party needs.

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Updated Date: Aug 14, 2018 15:02:43 IST

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