Are you surprised to see Rahul Gandhi frequently hitting the streets of late—standing in a queue at an ATM in New Delhi last Friday and spending hours in police detention a week before to protest against the Centre’s one-rank-one-pension scheme? Be prepared to see more of him in action.
The Congress has finally found a way to counter the mass appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Or so the opposition leaders believe. The idea is to try to neutralise his personality cult with persistent attacks on his government on issues concerning the common man, a Congress leader told HT. Rahul’s 2,000 km ‘kisan yatra’ in Uttar Pradesh in September-October was a part of this strategy. He will embark on a similar tour in poll-bound Punjab to highlight the plight of farmers.
Congress sources said the party would counter the personality-driven politics of the ruling BJP with what they call “issue-based” politics. They cite the Congress’ unexpected return to power in 2004 when then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s popularity was at its peak. “In 2004 general elections, few foresaw the Congress coming to power. Vajpayeeji, a great orator, was still a popular leader and the then NDA government had many achievements to showcase. Soniaji was no match to him in terms of his oratorical skill. Yet you saw what happened,” said a Congress functionary who was involved in formulating the party’s election strategy then. The Congress chose to focus on issues concerning the poor, the farmers, and the underprivileged, whose concerns found no echo in the then NDA’s ‘India Shining’ campaign.
The principal opposition party finds itself in a similar situation now. Rahul, though unencumbered by any language problem that his mother faced, can’t match Modi’s oratorical skill-- or rhetorical flourish as political rivals describe it. The party seems to be in disarray with leaders in different states switching their loyalty to the ruling camp. Leaders remain insecure about their roles in future. The Congress gave up its grand revival plan in Bihar to play a second fiddle to regional parties and stay on the winning side, but continuous erosion of its support base is evident- from Jammu & Kashmir in the north to Kerala in the south and from Maharashtra in the west to Assam in the east.
Congress sources say that the strategy to focus on issues came in place after Rahul’s success in putting the government on the mat on net neutrality and land acquisition bill. Subsequent weeks and months saw him joining agitating students at the film institute in Pune, at Hyderabad university and at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Congress vice-president has stayed in headlines—sometimes with the help of Delhi police that recently chose to detain him for protesting against OROP that allegedly drove an ex-serviceman to commit suicide and often with help from members of the ruling dispensation who showed a penchant for courting controversies.
“The Congress represents a certain ideology that captures the essence of India—equitable distribution of resources, welfare of the poor and the downtrodden, social justice, secularism, pluralism. We will continue to fight for that. We will oppose the government whenever it tries to trample that ideology. It’s not a fight between individuals; it’s a fight between ideologies,” said a Congress office-bearer.
Political scientist Suhas Palshikar endorses the Congress’ move to do issue-based politics, but says that the party has to first decide where it stands. “It’s opposing Modi for everything-- forgetting that it was a party to many of his initiatives such as the GST, demonetization, and liberalization of the economy. Don’t expect that one leader or one family will be able to change the Congress’ fortune.”
Rahul’s actions have brought the Congress back into headlines but there is no indication of a reversal in party’s fortune yet. Congress leaders cited “organizational weaknesses” as the reason for the party’s downslide but there is no remedial action yet. Instead, the Congress Working Committee recently sought another year’s extension to hold organizational elections, further deepening anxiety and suspense in the party rank and file who want clarity about their own roles as also those of top leaders.