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5-min read

By Anointing Himself Challenger, Rahul Gandhi is Dictating Terms to PM Narendra Modi and Regional Parties

Rahul told the opposition parties the basic truth: It is near impossible for a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance of regional parties to form a government in Delhi. At least, in 2019.

VVP Sharma | CNN-News18@vvemuri

Updated:August 1, 2018, 7:16 PM IST
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By Anointing Himself Challenger, Rahul Gandhi is Dictating Terms to PM Narendra Modi and Regional Parties
File photo of Rahul Gandhi campaigning during Karnataka elections. (Image: INCIndia/Twitter)

Rahul Gandhi truly set the cat among the pigeons. He did this at the peak of the campaign for the Karnataka assembly elections on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

It was a seemingly innocent, passing remark that he would like to be the Prime Minister if the Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2019.

But it was anything but innocent. It was an intended remark, aimed at provoking responses.

First, it simply stopped the verbal wagon of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his rallies in Karnataka. He had to react to what Rahul said.

Rahul had simply upped the campaign game. Modi’s by now routine speeches immediately took on a new sting aimed at dynasty politics of the Nehru-Gandhis. The BJP, simultaneously, erupted in a national reaction, ridiculing Rahul. Rahul's statement stung? Suddenly RaGa was more important than Basava or Lingayat or Karnataka. He set the agenda, at least for today.

Two, Rahul’s remark was the first, confident statement at power-grabbing by the Congress since its 2014 drubbing. How could a national party, reduced to a paltry 44 Lok Sabha seats, ever dream of returning to power?

The rhetoric gathered momentum as the years passed and the Congress began to lose state after state. It was about Congress losing a state; it was immaterial if the loss was because the BJP managed to come to power even with two seats. A loss is a loss.

A party reduced to handling four states in India – Karnataka, Punjab, Mizoram (elections due this December) and Puducherry – could not dream of beating the Modi juggernaut in 2019. That was the refrain in the BJP and its social media adherents.

Rahul swept aside this assertion with his remark. As president of the Congress, he meant to convey that it is the creed of a national party to behave, and be seen to behave, as a national party. And so, the party has no option but to dream big – like defeating the BJP and coming back to power to 2019.

It can get defeated in the process, no doubt. But it cannot stop dreaming big because of the worry of defeat. That is the “bane” of being a national party. Perhaps that was Rahul’s logic. Or something close to it. In this sense, it was aimed more at reviving the morale of the ordinary congressman than taking a swipe at Modi.

Three, Rahul declared himself the leader to square-off against Narendra Modi in 2019. Mother Sonia was also in Karnataka when the son made that statement. Is the transfer of power in the Congress deemed to be complete by this statement? Would the mother, and Rahul's detractors within the old guard of the party, say that he has come of age? We wouldn't know, would we!

Four, he did not wait for someone to anoint him the PM candidate. If that is over-confidence or a shrewd move, Rahul alone will know at this point of time. But the fact is, the equation for 2019 has simply undergone a change from today; Modi has a challenger.

Till now, it was Modi who dictated the terms of challenge: He made Arvind Kejriwal a challenger by taking him on one-on-one; so what if the BJP was decimated in Delhi. He made Laloo his challenger by taking him on one-on-one; so what if the BJP was badly mauled in Bihar. This time, Rahul beat him to it by naming himself Modi’s challenger. It’s a perception game.

Five, he sought to show the Left parties their place in the current political spectrum; that is, nowhere. He was literally taunted for the last six or seven months, as CPM leader Sitaram Yechury grappled with his detractors inside the party on supporting the Congress against the BJP. Just imagine the temerity of this party.

Wiped out from West Bengal and Tripura and the Lok Sabha except for Kerala, it still thinks it decides the politics of secularism versus fundamentalism. The CPM getting one or two seats in the 2019 is no solace for any non-BJP government. It simply does not matter.

In the last couple of months, the CPM watched from the sidelines as the regional political parties began maneuvers for testing political/alliance waters.

Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik, Lalu Prasad, Sharad Pawar, MK Stalin, K Chandrashekhara Rao, Omar Abdullah, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati – they were all meeting in Delhi and other state capitals, keeping the political columnists busy. What was the outcome, nobody knows.

Yet, Rahul’s remark seems incongruous, coming as it does at a time when the Congress ought to be begging for inclusion in the non-BJP front.

Rahul also sent a message to the regional parties. He revealed to them the basic truth: It is near impossible for a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance of regional parties – with or without the Left – to form a government in Delhi. At least, in 2019.

Rahul did not mean to say that the BJP is bound to lose in 2019 and that all parties would have to support the Congress under his leadership. No. He merely reminded them of their current limitations: One, All of them are too divided to unite. (BSP and SP in UP could transfer votes thanks to both castes having a common “enemy”. Can one imagine Naidu and Jagan of YSRCP coming together? Or DMK and TTV of Amma’s ADMK? Laughable, isn’t it?)

Two, their own interests will determine their need for either the BJP or the Congress. Three, there cannot be a situation where one of them can become the PM with either of the national parties supporting them.

Just see the reactions from the Left and the regional parties. All of them reacted along expected lines. Nobody really welcomed his statement. But nobody really flayed him either. Rahul’s statement makes it clear to them that if they ignore him and the Congress, they will then have to throw up a third contender, apart from Modi and Rahul, for 2019? Yeah?

The stakes in 2019 will be much higher than in 1977 or 1989. Neither the Congress nor the BJP – if weakened at the 2019 Hustings - can afford to hand over the reins of power to an alliance and support it from outside. It is imperative for them to become the ruler. Period.

With 274 seats the BJP cannot remain content. With 48, the Congress cannot withdraw from the race. Seats are needed to form the government. But perception is needed for facing the elections in the first place. It is a do or die situation. And Rahul today cast the die for the Congress. Good, bad, or otherwise.

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