Politically, it was a good move. But Congress could have planned the optics better
So, Rahul Gandhi is keen to be Prime Minister if the Congress has the numbers post the forthcoming General Election. In iterating the point during the Karnataka State Assembly election campaign in Bangalore on Tuesday, Rahul was being unexceptionable. After all, when he accepted the leadership role of one of the two national political parties in India, it was pretty obvious that if his party did well and was in a position to form a Government, he would be the only contender for Prime Minister from the Congress.
Not only was such a statement needed given the Congress’ president’s well-known initial reluctance to take on responsibility as an ethical corollary to wielding power, it was also clearly aimed to shore up the confidence of and inject enthusiasm in party activists, supporters and foot soldiers. A combative Rahul Gandhi, hungry for his party’s victory at the hustings and willing to say as much without faux modesty, will play far better with the Indian electorate than pretending to be ‘above’ aiming for political power given his context of privilege and entitlement. That Rahul is clearly learning Indian politics is increasingly about decisive leaders not hostage to consensus was evident in his statement; his impish if somewhat facetious barb at Prime Minister Narendra Modi who he claimed would definitely not be Prime Minister in 2019 (“it shows on his face that he knows it”) too will have its takers among the Congress faithful even if it amounts to wishful thinking as of now. Similarly, Modi’s riposte on Wednesday that Rahul’s statement smacked of arrogance and entitlement is par for the course and aimed to consolidate the simpatico-to-BJP populace which may be showing signs of wavering. But as a strategy going into a presidential style General Election it makes perfect sense for the challenger to throw down the gauntlet to the reigning champion, to use a pugilistic analogy, even if the latter outweighs the former by a stone. It helps focus the public’s mind on a binary - Modi or Rahul - which could ensure the Congress manages to punch above it weight, i.e. gain traction out of proportion to its actual support on the ground.
The problem for the Congress president’s pitch, however, arises if the post-poll situation is one wherein the option of Government-formation comes to rest on a coalition whether of the Congress plus allies (or vice-versa) kind or even some sort of regional parties plus Congress formulation. From Mamata Bannerji to KCR and Sharad Pawar to Mayawati, the Opposition has in its ranks leaders with Prime Ministerial ambitions second to none and RG is considered far too junior, inexperienced and ill-equipped by them to lead any prospective coalition unless the Congress has overwhelming numbers, which even the party’s staunchest supporters do not claim as of now. That is why the optics of the Congress president’s message needed to have been handled in a more nuanced manner. Till the other day, for example, the Congress was supping with the flotsam and jetsam of Indian Opposition parties as a collective; today, it is laying claim to Prime Ministership without having the courage to clearly lay down an independent path for itself or working on its revival across many States of the country where it has been reduced to a rump. Even if it means losing 2019 and living to fight in 2024 with a real shot at forming a single-party Government.