Despite goof-ups, Rahul Gandhi’s growing acceptability is the biggest challenge to Modi. A mixed poll result would be a face-saver for both
Will Congress President Rahul Gandhi emerge as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll? He could, if fortune smiles on him and the Congress improves its position in the five State Assembly polls currently taking place in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana. Together they constitute 83 Lok Sabha seats. These elections are seen as the semi-finals before the 2019 General Election and also indicate where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stands. The first three States are ruled by the BJP while the Congress rules Mizoram and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) rules Telangana. The BJP is a minor player in these two States. Stakes are high for both the Congress and its president.
This will be the first mini general election under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership after he took over the reins of the party in March. Sonia Gandhi demitted office after the party had seen its worst by getting just 44 seats in 2014. And now if the Congress can improve, it will be a big gain for the Congress president. Early on, Rahul attempted to promote grassroots leaders up the ranks and infuse new blood at the top, but the old guard resisted him successfully. As vice-president, he tried to build his own core group comprising lightweights like Madhusudan Mistry, CP Joshi and Mohan Prakash, but once he became the president, he dropped them and turned to the tried and trusted veterans.
Moreover, for the first time since 2014, the Congress starts as the frontrunner in this round of elections. Much depends on the results of these elections as in 2014 the BJP had in Chhattisgarh won all 11 seats; in Madhya Pradesh, it won 26 out of 29 seats; and in Rajasthan, the party won all 25 Lok Sabha seats. An emphatic win for the BJP will be seen as a continuation of the Modi magic. But the challenge between Modi and Rahul is quite interesting. While the BJP will have to win a majority of these five States, Gandhi has to win just one State to bring his party on track. For the BJP, retaining power in the Hindi heartland is important to give a message that its base is intact ahead of 2019. Interestingly, there is no wave in these polls.The chief ministers face serious anti-incumbency. The issues are more or less state-specific but by and large they are power shortage, water, tribal welfare, Naxalism, agrarian crisis, petrol price hike, Rafale, demonetisation and GST.
Though polling is yet to be completed in Rajasthan and Telangana, pollsters and political pundits are predicting various scenarios on the election results. According to the CVoter survey, the Congress might sweep Rajasthan, win Telangana and perhaps Madhya Pradesh by a small margin. Even in Chhattisgarh and Telangana, the Congress is locked in a close contest. The satta market, which runs into crores in every election, expects a Congress win in Rajasthan and a close fight with a 50:50 chance for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the Assembly elections. The best case scenario for the Congress would be winning 5-0 or 4-0. Enthused by the predictions, the optimists in the party have already begun to say that they might achieve an unexpected win in all States. Moreover, such a win would enthuse the Opposition and encourage the BJP-baiting parties to come together under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Already some efforts are going on for Opposition unity ahead of the upcoming election.
Despite some goof-ups, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the main challenger to Modi as some recent surveys show the growing acceptability of Gandhi as one of Modi’s biggest challenge. The Congress strategists are busy projecting Gandhi in a new avtar to counter BJP’s Hindutva. Adopting a soft Hindutva line, Gandhi has been temple-hopping and self-proclaiming himself a devotee of Lord Shiva. The Congress has declared him a janeudhari (wearer of the sacred thread) and a Kashmiri Brahmin. The Congress has everything going for it right now like anti-incumbency in three States, emerging local level leadership and a counter Modi narrative. Its strategy is to corner the BJP through issues like the agrarian crisis, unemployment and non-delivery of his 2014 poll promises.The BJP has begun to take the criticisms of Gandhi seriously. A defeat for the Congress in the Hindi heartland would be a further blow ahead of the polls.
For the BJP, a face-saving scenario is to win at least one of the three big States. A worst-case scenario for the party would be to lose all three, as it will have a cascading effect on the General Election.
(The writer is a senior political commentator)