ANALYSIS | Anyone of You Can be Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Manmohan Singh’: Congress Dangles 2019 Carrot in Search for Allies
Rahul Gandhi might be coming out of the shadow of Sonia Gandhi, but he is surely following in his mother’s footsteps on the issue of declaring a prime ministerial face for 2019.
File photo of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. (PTI)
It is now becoming increasingly clear that the Congress is relying on its 2003 strategy to build alliances ahead of the 2018 Lok Sabha elections amid plethora of challenges. It seems to be gearing up to challenge the BJP and also keep regional leaders engaged and interested for a post-poll possibility.
In the last six months, Congress leaders have given confusing signals to the saffron party and regional allies alike. It suits the BJP if these elections become a direct contest between "angry young man" Rahul Gandhi and "man for all seasons" Narendra Modi.
The grand old party has been nimble on its feet to repeatedly change positions on the leadership issue. Its vague nebulous stand has also added a spring in the steps of the regional satraps — from north to south and east to west. The Congress has dangled a carrot, sending signals to all and sundry that any one of them could possibly become Rahul's ‘Manmohan Singh’ in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi might be coming out of the shadow of Sonia Gandhi, but he is surely following in his mother’s footsteps on the issue of declaring a prime ministerial face of the Congress. Sonia Gandhi, who brought the Congress back to power for 10 long years in May 2004, had remained non-committal on the issue of the PM candidate to ensure the ouster of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The move had helped checkmate the BJP which was confident of getting a third term under Vajpayee, posing the question “Who against Vajpayee?”
The fact is that Sonia’s silence, and her one-liners on the issue, had not only confused the BJP, but ambitious leaders in her own party as well. In the run-up to 2004 polls, the then congress president at times said she was not in the race. On other occasions, she reached out to her own party leaders, saying there were many competent contenders within who could become prime minister.
A media interaction in Mumbai in the last week of December 2003 proved a turning point in the opposition unity, in which Sonia made it clear that the BJP's defeat was more important than who would become the next prime minister.
This had not only helped her win over arch-rivals like the DMK and the Nationalist Congress Party, but brought the RJD, the Lok Janashkati Party, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the Left together. It also helped the Congress become friendly with the BSP. At the time, the Congress was backing the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh from outside. And this led to the emergence of a clear alternative to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
Sonia went to the residence of Sharad Pawar and Ram Vilas Paswan in the biting Delhi winter to stitch up the alliance, kept M Karunanidhi in good humour and revived the Congress' morale after the defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly polls.
Rahul Gandhi is following the same line. Although he has not completely ruled out being the prime ministerial candidate, he has made it clear that it is a numbers game and, thus, could become relevant only after the Lok Sabha polls. He will be the only choice of the Congress for the top post if it gets a clear majority in the lower house, but if it does not get the requisite numbers (273) then the issue would remain open. In such a situation, the Congress could apply the Karnataka formula where the No.3 party, the Janata Dal-Secular, was given the chief minister's post despite the Congress emerging as No.2, to keep the BJP out of power.
Rahul might not have proved himself as a vote catcher yet, but he is the only leader to get the political mileage of a BJP downfall. This is because Mayawati’s politics is confined to the Dalit vote base, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress remains a West Bengal-centric party, while Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav are too young to aspire for the country’s top post. On the other hand, the priority of MK Stalin and N Chandrababu Naidu is to become the kingmaker and remain in power in their home states Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, respectively.
The 2019 ‘mother of all battles’ is becoming more interesting and exciting by the day and it no longer looks a “one-horse race”.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.)
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