Has the Congress really become a force to reckon with again?
Around the end of 2017, the Congress seemed to change. Gandhi, once described by some of his own party-men as someone who believed politics could be a part-time pastime, seemed to become more focused. His messaging became more pointed and articulate, his demeanour more aggressive.columns Updated: Feb 18, 2018 10:54 IST
The big question before Chanakya and India is this: is the Congress revival for real? Or is it, as the Bharatiya Janata Party would have everyone believe, mere talk, with the anti-Modi brigade coming back to the original choice, Rahul Gandhi after testing out all others (and finding them wanting)?
The unfortunate aspect of this question – indeed, of almost all questions – in India, circa 2018, is that the answer is usually a function of political allegiance.
Still, it will be difficult to deny that the Indian National Congress hasn’t put a foot wrong in recent times. One political analyst, who asked not to be identified, said that the party was actually displaying a BJP-like efficiency. Backhanded or nor, that’s a huge compliment.
The BJP is now the party in the pole position in India. It has gone from strength to strength since winning the 2014 parliamentary elections with the first majority any party had managed in three decades. It swept Uttar Pradesh. It established itself in the Northeast. Directly and with or through allies, it is now in power in 19 states; it has won elections in 13 states since 2014. In this period – at least till the end of 2017 – the Congress hasn’t achieved much. For much of this time, it has appeared a muddled, confused party, still recovering from its shocking defeat in 2014 – so much so that even when it had an opportunity to form the government in Goa and Manipur, it faltered, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Meanwhile, the BJP juggernaut, powered by campaigner-in-chief, Narendra Modi, and strategist-in-chief, Amit Shah, rolled on.
It rolled on through rash utterances by some of its ultra-Right leaders, attacks by fringe elements in the name of protecting cows, and demonetisation and the implementation of the unified Goods and Services Tax.
Whatever the long-term benefits of the last two, they caused disruptions that the Indian economy has just about recovered from.
Around the end of 2017, though, the Congress seemed to change. Gandhi, once described by some of his own partymen as someone who believed politics could be a part-time pursuit, seemed to become more focused. His messaging became more pointed and articulate, his demeanour more aggressive. This was most evident during the Gujarat elections, in which the Congress improved both its vote- and seat-share at the expense of the BJP. The agrarian crisis in parts of South Gujarat may have been responsible for this – much more than the Congress’ alliances with Patidars and Dalits – but the Congress was able to take advantage of this.
The Congress carried this momentum into 2018, with wins in the by-elections in Rajasthan, where it won two Lok Sabha seats and an assembly constituency – again, at the cost of the BJP.
It is, of course, important to realise that coming a close second in a state election and winning by-elections is not the same as winning, even closely contesting, a parliamentary poll.
It is equally important to acknowledge that neither looked within the reach of the Congress between 2014 and late 2017.
It was always a given that India’s Grand Old Party would adopt the BJP’s successful social media playbook, and that too has come to pass – some of the Congress’ memes on Prime Minister Modi are as pointedly funny as the BJP’s on Rahul Gandhi.
In December, before the results to the Gujarat election were announced, Gandhi took over as president of the Congress from his mother, Sonia Gandhi. Since then, he has made two key appointments. As Hindustan Times first reported, he picked Koppula Raju, a Dalit and a former bureaucrat, to head his core team. It was reported that Raju “has been tasked with building Rahul’s team for the future, and is vetting about a hundred Congress leaders from across the country for organisational roles at the national and state levels, party officials said”.
He has also appointed investment banker-turned-political economist Praveen Chakravarty head of the party’s new data analytics department. The party plans to use big data as a weapon to take on the BJP, Chanakya learns.
If the first appointment indicates Gandhi’s desire to be his own man – some people are already claiming that Raju will be to Rahul Gandhi what Ahmed Patel was to Sonia Gandhi – the second shows a willingness to try new things to combat the BJP.
Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi has said that she will now manage her party’s relations with other parties and is seeking to build an alliance that can take on the BJP.
But even as the Congress is trying to transform, there are signs that it remains the same (at least in parts). For instance, its Northeast strategy appears a mess and Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided to all but ignore the elections in Nagaland.
Still, on paper at least, the Congress isn’t the party it was in 2014. Nor is the BJP.
Outcomes trump plans, though, and the performance of the two parties in important elections this year (Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh) will be the test of whether or not either party has changed.