These columns have been silent about Congress president Rahul Gandhi. There is a reason. The BJP and all its fellow travellers may have made him far larger than he is through relentless verbal attack and ruthless mockery over the years, but he is still a work in progress, not a final product as a leader as yet. Judging by his performance across the country in the last two years, he appears to be an interesting work in progress though.
From Pappu to popular, he is yet to cover the whole distance, but the fact that he has managed to wrest most big Hindi heartland states from the BJP, ward off the threat of the country being Congress mukt and build a positive profile for himself as a pan Indian leader – yes, he is more popular than Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the entire South – speaks volumes about his evolution as a political persona. As he is expected to lead the Congress for long and by both design and default play an important role in national politics, his growth would be worth watching out for.
No, he was never in competition with Modi for the prime minister’s job in this election. The comparison was manufactured with the intent to make Modi appear the sole choice among national leaders left for the people. With regional satraps ruled out for the top job given the low number of seats they can muster and lack of wider acceptability, the idea was to drive home the TINA (there is no alternative) factor.
The BJP exhausted considerable energy to project him as ‘THE’ challenger in a presidential-style contest. Think of the orchestrated social media attacks on him and the number of senior ministers and top party leaders responding to each of his statements on television and other platforms, you get the picture. The motive, of course, was to project him as a weak, confused and foolish leader who was no match to their contender. In their overenthusiasm, however, the BJP may have created a real challenger to Modi when none actually existed.
The primary challenge for Rahul when he took over its reins was to revive the moribund Congress, not gun for the prime minister’s chair. After all, the party was reduced to 44 seats in the general election of 2014. The party’s organisation had collapsed in several states and its loyal vote banks had deserted for other options. The party had allowed the process of decay to continue for too long. In fact, it started in the early 90s when the Mandir-Mandal politics led to the emergence of new players on the horizon. While Mandir politics drove the BJP from strength to strength, Mandal politics, the counterweight to it, saw caste-based regional parties emerge in strength. Both snatched big chunks of the Congress vote bank.
On the verge of being irrelevant in national politics, the first major task before the party was to put itself in a position where it could at least anchor a coalition, if not lead it. To achieve 272 seats to have a prime minister of its own was never a realistic ambition. At least 120 seats would place it in a position where it could have a role in the formation of a coalition government. In 2019, the national vote share of the party had dipped to 19 percent. This had to be pushed up to the level of 25 percent and above.
Also, it had to win back states where it was in direct contest with the BJP and regional parties. Under Rahul, the third part has been partially successful, with victories in Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. However, the party has to re-establish itself as the contender for power in several other states such as Odisha, Telangana and West Bengal. In Odisha and West Bengal, the BJP appears to have beaten it to the second spot. The real challenge for the Congress is to revive itself in at least some states where regional parties have dug in deep and the BJP is expanding its footprint.
Rahul Gandhi will have to chart his course in an extremely tricky electoral terrain. If he secures 120 seats for his party in this election, he would cross a psychological barrier. Achieving more would require great political maturity and determination. Like we mentioned earlier, he is still a work in progress. His moves will be keenly watched post the results on May 23.
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