After yet another round of resounding electoral defeats (save Punjab), is it the end of the road for Rahul Gandhi now? What should the Gandhi scion do? Leave the battlefield, or rise from the ashes like the proverbial Phoenix?
He can take a leaf out his mother Sonia Gandhi’s book, who single-handedly stopped the Vajpayee juggernaut in 2004, after crafting a stunning Congress’ return as head of the United Progressive Alliance.
Stung by a series of electoral drubbings and bracing against six years of BJP government at the Centre, a proactive Sonia ventured out of 10 Janpath, and met arch enemy NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and other veterans such as DMK chief M Karunanidhi, RJD boss Lalu Prasad Yadav and CPM leaders late Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, while her deputies managed the fringe and smaller parties such as the JMM, National Conference, TRS and so on. The rest is history – UPA 1 came out of nowhere and dislodged the Vajpayee government.
Who Will Stop the Modi Juggernaut?
2017 is worse than 2004, and it is no longer business as usual for Rahul. The only magic wand that can stop the Modi juggernaut is the Index of Opposition Unity. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP, with just 31 percent vote share, was able to form its government, even though 69 percent voted for the Opposition.
And as the Congress boss, Rahul has the necessary gravitas to lead the anti-BJP front. He should, therefore, take the first flight out of Delhi, and meet regional leaders and try bringing them together to form a new, solid coalition against Modi.
As the BJP emerges as a truly pan-India party, snatching state after state from the regional players, Rahul can play on the fears of the satraps. Biju Janata Dal boss and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is the latest state leader facing heat from a modified-BJP. The BJD has been supporting the Modi government, both inside as well as outside the Parliament, but a crafty BJP turned the tables against him in the recent civic elections by making deep inroads in BJD bastions.
Playing on the Fears of Regional Satraps
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee is also wary of BJP’s game plans in the state. NCP chief Sharad Pawar is also staring at possible political annihilation in the face of a resurgent BJP in Maharashtra. Even Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu is reportedly worried about BJP making inroads in Andhra, using his party’s alliance as a ladder.
Non-NDA leaders such Mamata, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Patnaik, M K Stalin and Pawar, who are still formidable in their respective states, along with Congress and the Left, can collectively offer a credible alternative to the BJP at the Centre. As a rallying point of the anti-BJP forces, Rahul can stay relevant, not only within the Congress but at the national level as well.
AAP & SP Can’t Be An Alternative to Congress
A silver lining in this dark hour is that the Aam Aadmi Party has lost the plot in Punjab and Goa, effectively crippling its chances of emerging as a national alternative to the Congress. As the head of a resurgent AAP, Arvind Kejriwal would have posed a challenge to Rahul as the PM candidate. Similarly, the Samajwadi Party’s defeat in UP has squandered Akhilesh Yadav’s chances of emerging as a PM aspirant in 2019, and ditto is the case with BSP chief Mayawati.
With three potential PM candidates eliminated from the fray, Rahul still has room to turn around his party’s fortunes. At a personal level also, leaders like Mamata, Mayawati, Akhilesh, Nitish and Lalu have good terms with the Gandhi scion.
Revolt Within the Congress
Gandhi family is the DNA of the Congress, and hence, Rahul may not face any revolt. But post results, knives will be out for him.
Plans were afoot to anoint him as president after the elections, in view of the deteriorating health conditions of Sonia Gandhi. Senior party leader Digvijaya Singh has already pre-empted a possible mutiny, saying that there is no question of Rahul stepping down. “The Nehru-Gandhi family is the greatest binding factor for the Congress, and the leadership has come to Rahul,” Singh told the media, soon after the results.
The dismal performance, however, is likely to embolden party leaders, who were miffed with the new culture of “managerial” politics brought in by the Gandhi scion. There will be yet another chorus to bring Priyanka Gandhi to the centre stage in the AICC.
In hindsight, Priyanka’s last-minute withdrawal from UP’s electoral scene, (whether due to personal or domestic compulsions or on the basis of negative feedback) appears to be a smart move to insulate herself from poor results and preserve the “brand” of another Gandhi heir apparent for the Lok Sabha polls.
Revamping the Party
With just two years left for the Lok Sabha elections, and another five states going to polls (Gujarat by the end of 2017 and Karnataka in 2018), Rahul must undertake a major organisational surgery to revive the moribund party machinery.
Among the immediate steps that he should take – grooming and cultivating state leaders, crush factional feuds, stop brain drain (a number of alienated leaders have since joined BJP), build a cadre, end ideological confusion, and find a new narrative in place of the much outlived “secularism” template.
Party insiders have been lamenting for the last couple of years that Rahul has picked up leaders who are good managers, but lack mass appeal or sound political grounding, to manage key AICC departments. Since 2014, the party has been facing a series of defeats (with the sole exception of tiny Puducherry and now Punjab) and thus, serious soul searching has been due for long. The party has been practicing a sort of reactionary politics, with Rahul revelling in the momentary adulation and media glare after his episodic interventions in the Lok Sabha.
Bringing Back Amarinder Was a Smart Choice
Punjab has been the only saving grace for the Congress, but not for Rahul, as the victory in the border state is primarily due to former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who was brought back as the PCC president some 16-odd months ago, after he threatened to quit the party for being marginalised by a lacklustre Partap Singh Bajwa, who was made the PCC chief in 2013 at the behest of Rahul.
Bajwa expended much of his time and energy in turf wars with Amarinder, triggering intense factional feuds, enabling the AAP to make inroads in Punjab. However, though belated, bringing back Amarinder at the helm helped the party.
Sources said the Congress would have won Uttrakhand, Goa and Manipur if it was not complacent. Instead of investing so much energy and time in UP, where its stakes were not very high, the party should have focussed more on these three, small but winnable, states where it lacked tall leaders.
Victory would have added three more states (in addition to Punjab) to the Congress’ kitty, giving at least a psychological boost to Rahul, said a party insider.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @benedict18. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)