In politics, power is de facto, not de jure. And who knows it better than the Congress that showcased Rahul Gandhi as its foremost leader but desisted from formalising his candidature for the PM’s post.
Rather than pitting Rahul against Narendra Modi, the party countered the BJP strongman with the “idea that’s India”: social justice, secularism and inclusive growth.
Sonia Gandhi drove home the point at Friday’s AICC session. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went a step further to declare that the Congress’s victory in the 2014 polls will be a victory for Rahul.
And when his own turn came to take the floor, the party’s campaign chief floored his audience with a speech that was arguably his best. He built his case around the same theme, calling his party and its workers “trustees of the idea enriched over centuries” by Ashoka, Akbar, Guru Nanak and Gandhi. “History is a witness that those who tried wiping out this 3,000-year-old legacy got wiped out themselves,” he said.
A rare glimpse it was of Rahul living down the ‘reluctant’ tag to lead his party into a difficult battle. He named none, but his target undoubtedly was Modi. Congressmen from across India lapped up each word of the address that was robust without being raucous. It had its serious, funny and populist moments in equal measure, a blend tailor-suited to carry the party’s message to potential voters.
The Congress’s strategy evidently is to remain relevant — regardless of the numbers it has in the new House after elections. As a party without a formally projected prime ministerial nominee, it will have the elbow room to prop up a regime of its own or the one of its choice.
A politically savvy BJP leader dismissed the proposition as “an impractical theory”. But the Congress’ slogan against Modi could find traction with regional leaders with their barely-concealed prime ministerial ambitions: the BSP’s Mayawati, the SP’s Mulayam Singh, the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK.
For its part, the BJP has foreclosed that option by setting out to marshal a majority of its own. Its campaign is all about Modi; the party’s entity subsumed in the claimant to the throne! If it does better than the Congress but remains woefully short of the magic 272 mark, it might have to undergo a painful personality makeover under a new leader.
What makes the possibility more daunting is the absence of a consensus cover candidate (for Modi) who would find acceptability within the party and among existing and post-election allies. The inevitability of a compromise candidate could throw up fault lines that even the saffron fountainhead, the RSS, might have problems tiding over.
That said, the journey ahead seems much more arduous for Rahul than for Modi. A good speech to enthuse workers is no antidote to backbreaking anti-incumbency. The Congress needs to do a lot more to survive the deadly winter. One swallow doesn’t make a summer.