For several months after the BJP won its landslide victory in 2014, the Congress appeared to be in a state of shock. The party had expected to lose — privately, top leaders had predicted that the BJP would get an overall majority — but it had not believed it would do so badly.
When it did recover, the party experimented with a variety of positions and strategies. Some, like the “suit-boot kisarkar” jibe may have influenced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy stances but they did little to advance the Congress’s own prospects. Others, including the hiring of former BJP election managers, did the Congress no good.
Now, however, with a few months to go for the general election, a coherent strategy appears at last to be emerging.
At the centre of this strategy is a shift — remarkable and unprecedented for the Congress — away from the positioning it has clung to for many years.
The Congress’s traditional position has been that it is India’s only national party and that, therefore, it must be at the centre of any non-BJP alliance. In 1999, when the Vajpayee government lost a no-confidence vote, the Congress refused to become part of an opposition alliance unless it led the new government.
That position now seems to have been abandoned. The Congress’s view is that its major priority is to ensure that the BJP does not get a second term. It believes that India cannot afford five more years of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah rule because this would destroy Indian secularism, damage institutions, increase social tensions and finish off the India that Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned.
Accordingly, it is willing to do whatever it takes — in terms of alliance and power-sharing — to ensure that this government does not get a second term. Though this position is not publicly stated too often, Rahul Gandhi has come close to enunciating it in recent informal meetings with journalists. Other Congress leaders have also stopped bragging about the primacy of the Congress in the opposition space.
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This shift is significant for two reasons. First, the other opposition parties don’t necessarily see why they should play second fiddle to a weakened Congress. So they are enthused by the prospect of an alliance that is more equal than, say, UPA I.
Of course, who becomes PM depends on the results of the next election. Should the Congress do very well, there is nothing to prevent it from staking a claim. But accepting the primacy of the Congress (or of Rahul Gandhi) is no longer a precondition for joining a new version of the UPA.
Secondly, the BJP has spent at least two years trying to portray the next election as a presidential contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Such is the party’s obsession with Rahul that the PM spent a large part of his speech during the TDP-sponsored no confidence motion attacking Rahul. Other ministers have followed his lead. The BJP’s social media cells go on and on about Pappu and the media are encouraged to rubbish Rahul.
Given Mr Modi’s stature, he may well win a presidential-style contest if Rahul is projected as the alternative. But will he do as well if he fights a united opposition that draws attention to the failures of his government?
Two others factors may affect the outcome of the election. A few months ago, Sonia Gandhi spoke of her concern that the Congress is being perceived as a Muslim party. As if on cue, Mr Modi asked recently if the Congress was a party of Muslim men.
So the Congress is toning down the hard secularist rhetoric and talking about Hindu sentiments. The media see this as soft Hindutva. The Congress sees it as pragmatism; as a necessary corrective to the characterisation that it is anti-Hindu. As for the soft Hindutva criticism, the party isn’t particularly worried. It reckons that Indian Muslims will either understand what it is doing or, in any case, will prefer the Congress’s soft Hindutva to the hard Hindutva of the gaurakshaks, the lynch mobs and the sanghparivar.
And finally, there is the Rahul factor. Nobody can argue that he has Mr Modi’s experience or his speaking skills. But equally, it is hard to deny that in recent months he seems to have grown in confidence. The constant attacks on Twitter and by the media are now beginning to smack of desperation. If he is such a useless Pappu, then why waste so much time obsessively abusing him?
The BJP is still the favourite to win the next election. But at least now, it might have a fight on its hands.