01 Jan 2019

Rahul Gandhi may have finally proven his mettle as a leader but the Congress party’s return to its glory days is hardly assured


The recently concluded Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram have changed the political landscape and impacted the Indian polity on multiple counts. The verdict of these elections will have far-reaching ramifications for the two parties dominating the national discourse – a humbled Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and a resurgent Congress.


After its disastrous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress tasted sweet success by winning three Hindi heartland states and revived hopes of challenging the well-oiled BJP election machine, which seemed invincible under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah, until now.


Rahul Gandhi said the Assembly election results were a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's non-performance on issues of unemployment, agrarian distress, corruption and negating the ill effects of demonetisation. Gandhi also said opposition parties will unitedly fight and defeat the BJP in 2019 elections with the central themes being unemployment, agrarian distress and corruption.


Derided by rivals for much of his political career, Rahul Gandhi has come of age with these elections and silenced critics by engineering a turnaround in the fortunes of the Congress. In the one year since his elevation as Congress chief, Rahul has run an energetic campaign against the BJP and the polls results have raised his stature as a serious politician.


He said the people's disenchantment over Modi's failure to deliver on his promises was palpable across the country.


"What was promised by Modi has not been delivered ... that question does arise. The feeling among the people across India is that Modi and his government have failed in delivering the promises they made," Gandhi said.


"I think there are serious questions being asked about the future of our youngsters, the central question is how does our country give jobs to millions and millions of youth?


"Prime Minister Modi has promised to give jobs but he has failed to deliver that. The feeling is similar among the farmers who have a disenchantment about how they are going to survive," he said.


He also exuded confidence that a united opposition would defeat Modi and the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.


"A resurgent Congress combined with opposition ... It will be very difficult for Modi and the BJP to win the 2019 elections. The clear message to PM and BJP is that the country is not happy with demonetisation, with GST, lack of jobs," said Gandhi.


"The opposition is strongly united and we will unitedly contest against the BJP," he added.


The BJP, however, maintained the verdict was a mandate against the state governments and not against the Modi government.


Silencing critics who once called him a part-time politician, Rahul Gandhi ran an energetic campaign since the announcement of polls in the five states in October and held 62 rallies, targeting Modi in every meeting.


He addressed 19 public meetings and held one roadshow in Chhattisgarh, 25 public meetings and four road shows in Madhya Pradesh, 19 public meetings and two roadshows in Rajasthan, 17 public meetings in Telangana and two rallies in Mizoram.


Gandhi was able to effect an organisational coherence in the poll-bound states, overcoming one of the party's weaknesses. With factions and rivalries among its own partymen, Congress leaders were asked to put aside their differences and put up a united fight.


He made organisational changes and made Kamal Nath party chief in faction-ridden Madhya Pradesh. Recent years have seen a power tussle between fellow Congressmen Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath in the state. It was Rahul Gandhi who intervened and ironed out differences between the three leaders and ensure that they work in tandem.


Similarly the Rajasthan state Congress was divided between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. The power struggle between the old guard and the party’s young leaders has only widened since Rahul Gandhi took over the party. Looking at the recent appointment of chief ministers in the three states, it seems the old guard still retains its influence.


The party’s poll performance is expected to energize the Congress rank and file who have been largely starved of election victories since its 2014 debacle. The latest victory is the first time since 2014 when the Congress has defeated the BJP in a straight contest.


Out of total 678 Assembly seats in the five states in the current round of elections, the Congress has won close to 300 seats while the BJP managed to win over 200 seats. In the 2013 Assembly polls, the BJP had won 377 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram while the Congress had won only 122 seats in these states.


The results of these five states, which were dubbed the semifinals ahead of the next general elections in April-May 2019, could be a factor in the battle between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led opposition.


The major issues raked up by Congress, specially the farm loan waiver amid an agrarian crisis across the country, employment and anger among upper caste, seems to have worked in its favour and could haunt the ruling dispensation if remedial measures are not taken.


However, despite winning Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has a tough task ahead in 2019. Except for Chhattisgarh, where the party won a two-thirds majority, the results were not as resounding as the Congress would have liked, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where it failed to cross the half-way mark on its own by just two seats.


It lost power in Mizoram, the only northeastern state it had, and was routed in Telangana where its decision to go with the Telugu Desam Party evidently boomeranged.


Questions remain if the verdict is strong enough to dent the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an effective campaigner and communicator but it is likely to give some confidence to Congress workers that the party has a chance to turn the tables if there is a "Modi versus Rahul" contest in 2019.


The Congress has performed well as a challenger but has found it hard to defend its incumbent governments. The BJP's strong performance in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh despite anti-incumbency apparently shows that the 2019 election will need a much more sustained effort by the Congress to dislodge the Modi government.


Though the Congress won more seats than BJP in both these states, the two parties have nearly the same vote share.


Simply banking on populist measures like loan waivers for farmers will not help solve the crisis ailing the agriculture sector. The party will need to do more to alleviate farmer distress and create jobs in the economy – the two main reasons for BJP’s unpopularity.


Another challenging task for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress will be to manage its various alliances in different states and put up a strong anti-BJP front. While some allies endorse Rahul’s leadership, there are others who are unwilling to have him lead the grand alliance. Without strong allies, the party will not be able to enhance its reach on the national map.


Unless Rahul continues to put up a spirited fight against the BJP and his good intentions actually translate into policies that address the real concerns of the nations, this watershed verdict will be all but lost. The field is open and he must hit the ground running.

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