After big loss, can Rahul Gandhi rebuild ailing Congress?

ByVinod Sharma
May 25, 2019 09:40 AM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) yielded an inch to gain a mile through the deft alliances it had stooped to stitch. The Congress foolishly clung to the inch and was left regretting its action.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) yielded an inch to gain a mile through the deft alliances it had stooped to stitch. The Congress foolishly clung to the inch and was left regretting its action.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi(AFP)
Congress president Rahul Gandhi(AFP)

It’s fashionable to lam the loser. Yet, at times the spanking is well deserved. Not only did the Congress fail to break new ground, it meekly ceded the space it had in the recently won states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka. The bubble also burst in Gujarat where it gave the BJP a scare in the 2017 assembly polls.

Adding insult to injury were Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia’s defeats in Amethi and Guna. The blight only got bigger with the failed Jodhpur venture of Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav.

On reading my unflattering report on the poll scenario in the town that’s the elder Gehlot’s karmabhoomi, a friend who knows the state better had said: “The Congress will be routed in Rajasthan if Vaibhav loses in Jodhpur.” His off-the-cuff remark proved prophetic!

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In immediate terms, Rahul Gandhi has to come to terms with the loss of two good parliamentarians, Scindia and Mallikarjun Kharge, who was defeated in Karnataka. The likes of Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tiwari could perhaps fill the void but Rahul himself has to take the Karnataka veteran’s role as the leader of the single largest group in the new Lok Sabha.

So stark is the ignominy of the Congress wipeout that for the second successive election, it has failed to qualify as the principal Opposition. Its tally has improved from the earlier 44 but is still short of the 10% of the House strength to get the Leader of Opposition (LoP) slot.

The parameters for designating the LoP were set by the first Speaker, GV Mavalankar, who ruled that the numbers needed for it should be equal to the quorum (of 55) to run the House. The outgoing speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, refused to be flexible on that count and her successor is unlikely to be any different. The Congress has a tally of 54 in the 17th Lok Sabha.

In 2014, so sluggish and dispirited was the deeply tainted Congress that it didn’t even fight for an honourable defeat. The result: a simple majority after three decades, in this instance for Narendra Modi. Five years on, the party fought valiantly in Rahul’s helmsmanship but without returns. Why?

A quick answer: Rahul couldn’t build himself, or be seen as, an alternative to Modi. That bolstered the image of the PM as a doer, one that had been in any case reinforced after Balakot.

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On Pakistan and terrorism, the people wanted a demon-slayer; the Congress mascot fell short of it as a self-professed votary of love. He had few takers across Modi’s religio-nationalist wall that captivated the voter in the name of the martyred CRPF troopers and the brave fighter-pilots who targeted terror camps in Pakistan.

Modi’s stratosphere was beyond the Congress’s reach, be it the airwaves or the moving pictures that influenced the mass mind space. He used the watershed Balakot moment to completely outmanouevre his rivals.

The non-BJP parties had no catchy counter narrative. The Congress was obsessed with the “chowkidar” rant, but it found no traction. As one who claimed to have forsaken family ties, Modi carried the day against the so-called dynasties in the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party. He managed to do that while in an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal’s equally extravagant Badals.

For the Congress, the real anatomy of the 2019 poll is in the verdicts in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. The Congress and its allies did well in these states as Balakot wasn’t an issue and Modi not a decisive factor. A case study in itself was the manner in which Capt. Amarinder Singh countenanced Modi’s nationalist pitch in the border state.

The Captain’s was an issue-based support of the PM on India’s post-Pulwama retaliatory air strike. He travelled the border districts after Balakot, demanding no proof from the Centre, suggesting instead that “if Pakistan has killed 41, India should kill 82 of their soldiers”. His stand distinguished him from Navjot Singh Sidhu’s over-the-top, ill-timed soft-pedalling on Pakistan as also the Congress’s flip flop on the issue.

He also weathered and pushed back in Punjab the storm over Sam Pitroda’s cavalier “hua tou hua” comment on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. As one who had quit Parliament and the Congress after Operation Blue Star, he even dared Modi to apply the same yardstick of accountability to the post-Godhra carnage during his tenure as Gujarat CM.

Singh got away with the challenge. How? His political track record was his arsenal. No other Congressman could have risked questioning the PM on the 2002 Gujarat violence in the middle of a polarised campaign.

The Congress’s takeaway from Punjab is about the value of popular trust, of people’s faith in the leadership’s ability to deliver. It lost other bipolar contests due to early anti-incumbency and Rahul’s and the local leadership’s inability to match Modi’s appeal. That should worry the Congress about its organisational state and reservoir of leaders.

In MP, the state government’s half-met loan waiver promise had the farmers disbelieve the Nyay scheme. The yearly ~72,000 dole it entailed seemed too good to be true.

As is evident from the Congress’s situation in Odisha and West Bengal, absenteeism is suicidal in politics. In his future battles, Gandhi will need foot soldiers who reach out to the people to develop trust in him and the party.

A Bharat Yatra on the lines of Chadrashekhar’s 1983 journey could help Rahul talent scout for young cadres, gather popular expectations from his party besides understanding issues agitating the people.

That’s easier said than done but can be achieved through persistent public contact. As Lohia used to say: Zinda quomen paanch baras intezaar nahin kartin (communities that are alive don’t wait for five years). Such advocacy of popular struggles is more relevant than ever before. Today’s is an impatient India unwilling to wait out trickle-downs.

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