The Grand Old Party must not get carried away with new-found victories. It must first anchor Opposition unity and keep watch on BJP moves
For a party that appeared to be in an existential crisis, the Congress has much to cheer about following its win in three big States — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — this month. Success in elections is always heartening and it becomes even better given the fact that the Congress has been in a political wilderness since 2014. Though it seemed the BJP had all the momentum since 2004, the saffron space has shrunk a little after December 11, 2018. The challenge now for the Congress leadership is to take the momentum forward until the 2019 Lok Sabha election in which stakes are very high for both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA. After all, momentum does matter in politics. A diminished BJP is not going to sit quiet and allow the Congress to have a free run in the 2019 poll. It might even redouble its efforts to win the general election. Narendra Modi is an assertive Prime Minister and might re-package himself and reintroduce ‘brand Modi’ in a different mould. In all probability, alternative politics might gain momentum if Congress chief Rahul Gandhi goes the right way and projects a new narrative for himself and his party as going by the poll results, people are willing to give him a chance.
Gandhi’s priority should be to set his organisation, which has shrunk electorally, and redouble efforts for Opposition unity. The Congress is now at number four position in States such as West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It also finished at the third or fourth place in other States as well. Many sections, like the Dalits, tribals, upper castes and even Muslims have drifted away. The BJP’s strength is that it is a cadre-based organisation; it has unlimited resources, best communication skills and a wonderful propaganda machine. Internally, the young Gandhi has chosen to go with the old guard. The message became clearer with his choice of Chief Ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. He more or less told the youth that younger leaders will be allowed to build their profiles, even if that means they have to wait a bit longer for leadership roles.
Second, he must focus on building alliances. Even with the wind in its sails, the Congress is faced with challenges. The Opposition parties have inherent contradictions but Gandhi has been showing some boldness. He walked with Jignesh Mewani and Hardik Patel in Gujarat, which helped the party reduce the BJP’s numbers in the State. Similarly, the decision to support the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka earlier this year, to stop the BJP from forming the Government, also showed his political adventurism. Besides, the party has tied up with alliance partners in different States like Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Jharkhand. Further, it is in the process of aligning with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. The Grand Old Party has to keep the UPA flock together and also expand wherever necessary. As a bigger party, the Congress has to be flexible in sharing seats with other regional parties.
Third, he has to build a new narrative. It may not be enough to indulge just in Modi-bashing and negative campaigning. Gandhi successfully tapped political resentment of the farmers against the BJP Government as also discontent among the unemployed. These are the two major issues that helped him win the three States. Negative sentiments circling demonetisation and GST, too, helped. The caste factor played its role for the grand old party.
The fourth option is to stitch Opposition unity. The success in Assembly polls has given Gandhi a new image and he must now be able to reach out to senior leaders and regional Opposition parties and ensure that the Congress is able to anchor the coalition. Following the Karnataka polls, the Opposition showed interest in forming a ‘grand alliance’ which fell apart with the BSP and SP moving away. It is now clear that the prime ministerial face of the Opposition will be decided only in a post-poll scenario. These parties can do the trick if they come together and make sure that Opposition votes are undivided. In fact, Modi’s strength lies in Opposition disunity. The road to success in 2019 is challenging but Rahul Gandhi has made a good start. Despite setbacks, the BJP remains a formidable opponent and must not be taken lightly. As Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley pointed out, the BJP won the same three States in December 2003 but lost the 2004 general election. Hence, the Congress should not be carried away by the present success. It has won the battle but not the war as yet. Time is very short and Opposition parties must decide their course of action now itself.
(The writer is a senior political commentator)