Congress president Rahul Gandhi must feel like an Indian Administrative Service aspirant who clears the preliminary stage of the civil services examination on his last chance. Like the aspirant, Rahul must feel relieved even though there are still two hurdles to cross: The 2019 Lok Sabha election and government formation thereafter. But a poor performance in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan could have just about sealed his fate.
The BJP’s spin doctors will portray the Congress victory as an outcome of anti-incumbency operating in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Since the polity in these three states is bipolar, the Congress, it will be argued, became the recipient of votes of those who were angry and alienated from the Bharatiya Janata Party. In other words, the story of these elections was more about the BJP losing the elections rather than the Congress winning it.
This is as good as saying that the IAS aspirant cleared the preliminary stage of the civil services examinations because the question papers he or she answered were relatively easier than in previous years. It may have been fortuitous for Rahul to have been tested in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but it cannot be denied that he had been working hard for the past two years without showing good results.
He was humiliated in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, missed upsetting the BJP in Gujarat in December last year, and then, in 2018, went on to lose Karnataka, where he regained a modicum of prestige as the Congress managed to deny power to the BJP. Call it his destiny, but the Congress’ comeback certainly bolsters its hopes in Rahul’s leadership.
The Assembly results of 11 December will dramatically alter the popular perception of Rahul — he will not seem a liability for parties looking to forge an alliance against the BJP. It will enable him and the Congress to bargain better for seats in the emerging Opposition alliance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
At least until the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul will seem a natural choice to lead the anti-BJP formation countrywide.
Give credit to Rahul for exploiting the anti-incumbency sentiment, which often influences electoral outcomes in India. He gave a relatively free hand to regional satraps, united them to a great extent, and exploited the agrarian discontent sweeping large parts of India. He was aggressive in his attacks on Modi. He did not seem diffident as he once was. Rahul has indeed come a long way from the days he appeared disinterested in politics.
Yet the exuberance of his triumphs should not persuade him into believing he can take on Modi alone. He needs regional leaders and their parties to checkmate Modi and the BJP. In fact, the fairly good showing of Independents and outfits with footprints over a few districts shows that people alienated from the BJP tend to vote them wherever they appear stronger than the Congress.
Indeed, the Congress is keen to cobble alliances with regional parties, but its victories on Tuesday could have the party, in its hubris, punch well above its weight.
It will have to restrain itself from making demands in states where it barely counts — for instance, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It will have to accept a role not in consonance with its own perception of being a national party. It will also have to be accommodative of local parties, as for instance in Madhya Pradesh.
The challenges before Rahul Gandhi, therefore, remain double-fold: Not only will he have to increase his party’s tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he has to ensure that regional outfits reduce the number of seats that the BJP had won in 2014. It means the Congress must focus on states whose polity is bipolar — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat — or where it is a senior player in a state-based alliance. In this category are states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala.
Then there are unresolved questions such as: After the debacle in Telangana, will it align with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh?
The Congress will have to take a hard decision on states like West Bengal, Odisha, and Delhi: Should it accept the supremacy of Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Arvind Kejriwal, postpone its own revival in their states, and hope they will vanquish the BJP? Gandhi seems to have taken a step in that direction by convening the meeting of Opposition leaders in Delhi a day before the Assembly results came pouring in.
Gandhi should also expect the BJP to fling a slew of corruption charges against him and other stalwarts. For one, one of the middleman in the AgustaWestland deal is in the government’s custody. He is expected to sing against the Congress. There are investigations afoot against Rahul’s brother-in-law, Robert Vadra. Even he and his sister, Priyanka, have been accused of conflict in interest through their decision to rent out their farmhouse to a company that was under investigation.
Nobody expects Modi not to recalibrate his strategy following the reversals the BJP has suffered in the three north Indian states. He will seek to address the agrarian distress through populist measures. He will try to win over the alienated youth. A party in power always enjoys the advantage of defining the agenda for an election.
Rahul will have to devise an alternative narrative to that of the BJP. It just might not work for him and the Opposition to harp on Modi and the BJP being a threat to democracy, the Constitution and communitarian living. He should have the BJP imitate him rather than the other way around.