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How Rahul Gandhi's Vanishing Acts are Taking Amit Shah and Narendra Modi Closer to 'Mission 350'

File image of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. (Image: PTI)

File image of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. (Image: PTI)

Six months ago, when Shah declared 'Mission 350' for 2019, the Opposition sniggered at his 'Mission Impossible'. The BJP's unlikely victory in the North East has wiped the smirks off Opposition faces, as the credibility gap between the electorate and the Congress-Left seems wider than ever.

Six months ago, when BJP chief Amit Shah declared 'Mission 350' for 2019, the Opposition sniggered at his 'Mission Impossible'.

In the wake of adverse bye-election results and a less-than-comfortable victory in Gujarat, the Opposition confidence soared. The BJP's unlikely victory in the North East, however, has shown that the Congress has yet to bridge the 'credibility gap'.

The BJP's success in the multi-ethnic, liberal milieu of the North East has confounded the Lutyen's Delhi elite and bears testimony to Amit Shah's poll craft.

The overriding message is that the BJP, defying the liberal rationale, leveraged its position as the predominant national party and convinced the electorate of its pluralism and comfort with diversities, ethnic and social. It also showed its comfort with the local-level alliances that regional sub-nationalism demands. Thus, it has occupied the space hitherto held by the Congress.

Amit Shah's poll craft relies on a five-point system: Machinery, Alliances, Communication, Organisation, Welfarism; all backed by plentiful resources and the ubiquitous but silent RSS.

While the Sangh's first shakha in the North East dates back to 1946, followed by a slow but steady expansion (undeterred by the kidnapping of four senior pracharaks from northern Tripura in 1999), it took Shah's poll craft to leverage the RSS footprint into electoral victory.

In the face of Shah's comprehensive battle-readiness, it is clearly unsafe to call any election in favour of the Opposition until the last ballot is counted. Does that mean the BJP is unbeatable at the hustings?

Oddly, while political pundits give the Congress an advantage in the forthcoming state elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram, the BJP remains the odds-on favourite to win Lok Sabha 2019.

The impression that the Congress is not really in the game in 2019 stems from the party itself, which has so far shown no stomach for the coming battle. One might have expected that Congress president Rahul Gandhi would be engaged in frenetic poll preparations, like stitching up of alliances, raising resources and communicating with the masses. Instead, his flash disappearances from the political scene continue.

Perhaps the Congress believes that excessive taxation, lack of employment, farmers' woes and a slew of scams will erode the BJP's popularity, rendering Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma and the development and nationalism planks impotent. But its poor communication skills may nullify these advantages.

The BJP, unlike the Congress, understands the subaltern classes and is thus able to communicate far more effectively. Congress president Rahul Gandhi's advisors have failed in this endeavour and one by one, have fallen by the wayside: Madhusudan Mistry, Mohan Prakash, Jairam Ramesh and now, CP Joshi, who was in charge of the North East.

The Congress has been reduced to claiming that the BJP's efficient electoral machinery subverts democracy. This is the language of losers and highlights the party's abject failure to shine on a playing field of its own creation.

That said, the Congress still boasts powerful state satraps who, independent of the party high command, can carry elections on their own, as Captain Amarinder Singh did in Punjab. Likewise, Siddaramaiah is expected to deliver in Karnataka, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Jyotiraditya Scindia/Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. But Rahul Gandhi must carry 2019 and therein lies the problem and the credibility gap.

For his part, Shah faces a formidable task. He must overcome dissonance on a variety of fronts. Repeating a 100 percent score in Gujarat (26 seats), Rajasthan (25), Delhi (7), Uttarakhand (5), Himachal Pradesh (4) and Goa (2) or the spectacular victories in Uttar Pradesh (71 of 80), Madhya Pradesh (27 of 29), Chhattisgarh (10 of 11) and Jharkhand (12 of 14) seems unlikely.

Likewise, there's little hope of improvement in Karnataka (17 of 28), Assam (7 of 14), Haryana (7 of 10), Maharashtra (41 of 48), Andhra Pradesh (17 of 25) and Bihar (28 of 40).

On the other hand, it has only two of 42 in West Bengal, one of 20 in Odisha, one of 39 in Tamil Nadu (one of 39), one of 17 in Telangana and none at all in Kerala. Shah has already targeted 120 critical constituencies and unleashed an army of prabharis (election in-charges) and vistaraks, who are in situ.

Against this backdrop, the North East result is significant. Having broken new ground there, the BJP will now look to the south, deploying the strategy of local-level alliances.

(The writer is a senior journalist. Views are personal)