UP Election 2017: With Akhilesh-Rahul show, Congress has set 2019 game plan in motion

The takeaways from the joint appearance of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav yesterday are significant, both in terms of optics and substance. Two dapper young leaders from different parties sharing an easy camaraderie was visually pleasing. They brought freshness and warmth to the table, a welcome relief from the grimness vintage politicians carry in their tired visages almost as a matter of rule. The smiles from both looked genuine and non-toxic. There was a hint of vulnerability in both as they fielded uncomfortable questions from journalists.

But the joint address was much more than optics, and focussed on the immediate challenge: Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Of course, for Rahul and Akhilesh, the Assembly elections are crucial. Rahul has to revive a shrinking Congress in the politically-important state and gain for it some position of electoral respectability if he has to establish himself as a bankable leader. For Akhilesh, it is a matter of prestige after he staged a coup against his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and seized control of the Samajwadi Party. He has to prove himself as a leader and nothing less than a victory will help.

 UP Election 2017: With Akhilesh-Rahul show, Congress has set 2019 game plan in motion

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi during a joint press conference in Lucknow on Sunday. PTI

However, the bigger message from the joint appearance is the battle for 2019 General Election has begun, and in all likelihood, from Uttar Pradesh will emerge the biggest challenge to the BJP — by extension to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A defeat in the coming elections will mean a major loss of face for both. After winning a staggering 71 seats with a mammoth vote-share of above 40 percent in the 2014 General Election, a loss in the state less than three years later will mean a major erosion of popularity of the party and its leader.

With the Samajwadi Party chief by his side, Rahul spoke about BSP leader Mayawati with politeness and grace. If a political meaning has to be drawn from this, then obviously it has to be in the context of Lok Sabha polls in 2019. The Congress vice-president is getting a coalition of non-BJP parties ready. The contours of it might look unclear at this point but the party has got its thinking in place. A good performance in Uttar Pradesh will take the idea forward.

He spoke repeatedly about the politics of anger and divisiveness practiced by the BJP. It appears the party has found an antidote to the shrillness and aggression of the latter in the politics of calmness and maturity. Akhilesh spoke the same language too, although his party is not exactly known for non-violence. Both felt people, particularly the youth, are tired of the BJP’s politics and are yearning to go back to issues that matter to them, the most important being jobs.

After close to three years in power, the BJP has exposed several chinks in its broad electoral game plan.

First, it is too much dependent on Modi; second, it’s handicapped without emotive issues; third, it has run out of important talking points; fourth, the Hindutva groups remain a perennial source of embarrassment; and fifth, by too much centralisation of leadership, it has left some states without strong leaders. It is no surprise that the Bihari versus Bahaari theme (from 2015) is being played out with a minor variation in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress’ team of strategists has termed Rahul and Akhilesh as "Uttar Pradesh ke ladke" to subtly hint at the outsider status of the top campaigners of the BJP — Modi and party president Amit Shah. Then there is the issue of demonetisation.

The other parties are no better placed either.

The Congress’ track record, particularly on corruption, is known to all; Akhilesh’s five years as chief minister have been marked by lawlessness and tardy development. But then the preponderance of Modi in the campaign without strong state-level leadership automatically makes any electoral contest a fight between state parties and the BJP at the Centre.

Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, believe these weaknesses in the BJP are not going to disappear anytime soon. The joint address at Lucknow dropped clear hints that Rahul is aiming for 2019.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 07:55:53 IST