The All-India Congress Committee session on Friday endorsed Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in the election campaign but stopped short of naming him as its prime ministerial candidate.
This is being hailed in some quarters as a masterstroke, or at the very least, a clever move calculated to minimise the party’s trauma in what looks like a tough election ahead.
This is because, the argument goes, keeping Rahul out of the firing line of BJP candidate Narendra Modi will insulate him personally to some extent from the effects of any disaster at the hustings. And, in the unlikely event of the Congress being able to form another government come May, he can always be wheeled out as the only viable PM the party has in its ranks. So in a sense, perhaps his candidacy has not been cancelled, only postponed and made conditional.
Partymen raised the slogan “Rahul for PM!” at the session, even as his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi stood firm, saying the decision was final. And the young Gandhi delivered a speech that was combative and well-crafted but said little about his future. All this may be a passable damage-limitation exercise, but there are some problems with the logic behind the party’s move.
One, it speaks of a mindset that is defensive in the extreme, the mentality of an outfit in disarray, one that almost wants its misery in government to end. This signalling will draw out the most bellicose in Mr Modi; already, the BJP is saying that it shows that the Congress is scared of the saffron party’s prize fighter. This is a difficult argument to refute.
To be fair, the Gandhi scion, as a presumptive PM candidate in the past few months, always had a bad brief: he has had to try and neutralise the damage of the last couple of years of the UPA 2’s governance, marred as they were by corruption and price rise. The second problem is that the decision does little to project the talent that exists within the Congress.
However, making him head of the campaign is the least that could have been done without changing course altogether. If the Congress fails — and its netas talk in hushed whispers of the possibility of a double-digit tally — some would expect a Save-Rahul-For-2019 campaign to be launched, perhaps with more gusto than the current election campaign.
But this in turn has two problems: The rank and file of the party or even Rahul Gandhi himself may change their respective minds on the leadership issue. And, if Mr Modi, if he becomes PM, delivers, he may well rewrite the fortunes of his party and give it a much longer shelf life. But one thing is clear from Friday’s speech: The poll battle has well and truly begun.