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Rahul Gandhi Sheds ‘Pappu’ Tag, Ready for a Presidential-Style Face-off With Nemesis NaMo

Rahul Gandhi Sheds ‘Pappu’ Tag, Ready for a Presidential-Style Face-off With Nemesis NaMo

The biggest loser in the assembly elections is BJP chief Amit Shah, whose detractors within the party and RSS will now gain traction and lobby for a replacement. This is unlikely before the 2019 polls, however.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi led the grand old party to a grand slam electoral victory in the Hindi heartland. The aura of invincibility haloing Prime Minister Narendra Modi vanished and Rahul went from underdog to contender, almost a year after he took over as party president.

This is Rahul's coming-of-age story - a landmark in his political career, in that it is his first conclusive electoral victory over the BJP. He led the election campaign from the front and had proved himself a worthy opponent even before the results came in. The 'Pappu' tag is forever consigned to the annals of snarky social media commentary.

After years of reverses, most recently in the north-east and the south, the Hindi heartland has revived the Congress just in time for Lok Sabha 2019, although the party's abject humiliation in Telangana and Mizoram at the hands of regional forces has detracted from Rahul's 'neta' moment (but gives his principle allies even more cause for celebration).

Granted, some elements of Rahul's strategy did not pay off, such as the alliance with the TDP in Telangana. Also, the Rajasthan result may have been even better if in-house rebels had been contained. However, putting Kamal Nath in charge of Madhya Pradesh, aggressively pursuing what is dubbed as 'soft Hindutva' and most of all, offering massive sops to farmers turned out to be productive.

Unlike Punjab, where the Congress was seen to have won despite of Rahul's meddling, he can take credit for the victory.

The biggest loser in the assembly elections is BJP chief Amit Shah, whose detractors within the party and RSS will now gain traction and lobby for a replacement. This is unlikely before the 2019 polls, however. To be fair to Shah, he had been tasked with the near-impossible: to beat double anti-incumbency and acute farmers' unrest with no counter-narrative to offer was tough, to say the least.

The Assembly 2018 results have no predictive value as far as Lok Sabha 2019 is concerned. The trends at the state and national level are usually widely different. In 2003, the BJP won the Hindi heartland, but lost the Centre. In 2008, it won MP and Chhattisgarh, but again lost in Parliament. Likewise, in 1998, the Congress won MP and Rajasthan, but lost the Lok Sabha.

To extrapolate the results to the general elections and assume that rural and small-town India across the country will reject the BJP is misleading. The Congress won on a purely negative vote in these three states, benefiting from double anti-incumbency and acute voter fatigue in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It had nothing to offer by way of alternative vision – in fact, it deployed precisely the same mix of fact and fiction that the BJP used against it in the past.

The advantage for the Congress lies in the validation of Rahul Gandhi's leadership. Internally, the pro-Priyanka brigade is silenced and doubts about his electoral efficacy laid to rest, which will keep the fractious old satraps in check.

Externally, the Congress will enjoy more wiggle room at the negotiating table, but its pitch for leadership will be handicapped by the fact that regional forces have triumphed over the party in two states.

Sections within the Congress will doubtless blame its alliance with the TDP for the loss in Telangana and urge Rahul to take over the pole position in the mahagathbandhan from convenor-in-chief N Chandrababu Naidu. This involves the critical task of getting the SP and BSP, who skipped Thursday's meeting, on board.

In the next few months, the Congress will enhance its strength on the ground, as opportunistic netas big and small, do a ghar-wapsi along with their workers. If nothing else, the rank-and-file will be revitalised, sensing that they are in with a chance in 2019.

Rahul has thrown down the gauntlet and appears ready for a presidential-style face-off – a bold move, but one that is fraught with danger.

The road to Lok Sabha 2019 is uphill for both parties. The campaign for Assembly 2018 was a conventional one, centred around economic and governance issues – unemployment, fiscal mismanagement, agrarian crisis and so on - where the BJP is at a disadvantage. So, it will attempt to change the terrain.

It must also be noted that PM Modi did not lead the charge this time; the chief ministers did. And having expressed their ire, voters may well do a volte face in these states, particularly because the Congress will not be able to make good on its electoral promises (loan waiver, bonus on MSP, etc). In MP, for example, voters will be sympathetic to Shivraj Singh Chauhan - widely regarded as the better man who lost.

For the BJP, these elections were a lesson in hubris. Hegemonies are short-lived and no national party can do without allies, however insignificant they might seem. The increasingly granular nature of elections means that no section of voters can be ignored.

The campaign for Lok Sabha 2019 will be different, for three reasons. First, the campaign will see the PM front and centre. Second and more importantly, the Ram Janambhoomi issue will be in play. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has already kicked off the campaign with a successful rally in Delhi.

The torch will now be carried across the country (particularly in Uttar Pradesh, to counter anti-incumbency). The BJP may well opt for the legislative route on the Ram Mandir, putting the Congress in an awkward position.

Third, Modi and the RSS are at their best when under siege. Time and again, analysts have dismissed Hindu Rashtra (as embodied by Modi) as a spent issue, but they are quite capable of reinventing it, to consolidate the Hindu vote.