It is an irony that Rahul Gandhi, trolled and mocked by BJP's cyber army, nearly succeeded in bearding the lion in its den. Like the proverbial phoenix, the Congress rose from its ashes in Gujarat where it was comatose for 22 years and pulled off a creditable feat last week of winning 77 out of 182 assembly seats, squeezing the BJP's tally to an all-time low of below 100. This is a state where the Congress was reduced to zilch just three years ago as BJP bagged all the 26 Lok Sabha seats. It is a measure of Rahul's grit and confidence that he chose Gujarat, a hostile terrain and home turf of the two most powerful men in the country today â€“ Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah -- as his launchpad ahead of his anointment as Congress president. He may not have unnerved the Modi-Shah duo, but he definitely bruised their egos.
Close on the heels of a good showing in Gujarat, the acquittal of all 2G scam accused by the CBI special court on Thursday has come as another morale booster for the Congress. The BJP milked the so-called scam to the hilt, painting the Congress as the most corrupt party, and unseated it in the 2014 election. However, it is too early for Congress to rejoice. The Modi government is expected to pursue the 2G case in higher courts to keep the media hype over the "scam," synchronising with the next round of elections starting with Karnataka. The BJP may also try to leverage the 2G case, a Damocles Sword till the Supreme Court disposes of it, to wean away the DMK from the UPA.
"Development" and "corruption" were the leitmotifs of Modi's election campaigns. Three years down the line there is nothing much to write home about on the development front while the verdict on 2G has taken the sting out of the BJP's graft plank, at least for now. The liberal and progressive sections who voted for BJP in 2014 are aghast at the vigilantes and divisive forces spreading the agenda of hate. The Congress could recapture the non-Right mindspace, with Rahul playing a good Hindu to defang BJP's hard "Hindutva".
The Gujarat results and the ruling on 2G have come at the most opportune time for Rahul as he positions himself as a credible foil to Modi ahead of the general election. The prime minister needs to spin a new, saleable slogan for 2019 as the development and corruption planks stand diminished. Similarly, Rahul also needs to coin a smart slogan and present an alternative, inclusive agenda. A presidential style of campaigning, that Modi fashioned in 2014, will be advantageous to the born-again Rahul in an age of televised election battles. However, the Congress is bereft of an effective media strategy and lacks political and perception management.
The green shoots should not lull the Congress president into complacency. There are many pitfalls. His political opponents are formidable and no pushovers. The road ahead is strewn with political landmines and one false step could retard his post-Gujarat momentum. The message from Gujarat is that the BJP can ill-afford to ignore agrarian distress and rural disaffection. The Lok Sabha election is 15 months away and Modi has time to clean up the mess and reclaim some lost ground. Similarly, the urban disconnect should be worrying for the Congress. The party needs to walk the extra mile to bring the aspirational class back to its fold. In 2009, the middle class had overwhelmingly supported Manmohan Singh's economic policies.
No amount of external stimuli will help Congress win elections in the absence of a robust party organisation. The party is in a shambles in many states. Barring Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress does not have strong local leaders in crucial states like UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Rahul's top priority should be to rebuild the party structure from the Pradesh Congress Committees to the All-India Congress Committee, groom charismatic local leaders and end factional wars. And starting on a clean slate, Rahul could cajole and bring estranged Congressmen like Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra back to the party fold.
Alliances are pivotal to any winning strategy. While Rahul played smart politics stitching up poll pacts with Dalit, OBC and Patidar leaders in Gujarat, his task may not be easy with crafty leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. Cobbling together UPA-3 will be a big challenge for Rahul. The wily BJP strategists are past masters at sabotaging or pre-empting opposition alliances, using a combination of inducements and coercion. With many regional leaders facing graft charges, the CBI, ED and tax authorities also play an indirect role in shaping political alliances.
Many regional satraps who nurse prime ministerial ambitions now see Rahul as a potential threat. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar bolted away to BJP early this year. Mamata Banerjee, hitherto a bitter critic of BJP and eyeing the top job, is discomfited by Rahul's growing profile and has a line open to BJP. NCP boss Sharad Pawar does not want Congress to grow in Maharashtra and elsewhere. The NCP fielded 57 candidates in Gujarat but won just one seat, forfeiting deposits in over 50 constituencies. The BSP had 138 candidates in the fray and drew a blank. The Congress lost 13 seats with slender margins as these two parties split secular votes to the advantage of BJP. Besides, there were over 700 independent candidates, many of them funded by a party with superior resources only as spoilers. The same strategy could be played out in Karnataka and other election-bound states. After a string of electoral defeats in the last three years, the next round of elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalya and Mizoram is an opportunity and challenge for Rahul to stem the tide.