A sudden, vibrant Congress

The BJP's eyes are set on the Bihar poll which will determine whether the Modi momentum main-tains or starts to wane.

The significance of Rahul Gandhi in his new avatar is not what has happened to the Congress’ vice president after his 56 day break, but what has happened to his party after his return.

An active Rahul has suddenly energised the 130 year old party, which had hit an all time low in the 2014 general elections and was finding it difficult to pull itself up.  And then came the last straw, of Rahul taking off on the eve of the Budget session of Parliament without a warning.

An indication of a more charged Congress under ‘RAGA-2’ is the way it has handled the BJP blitz of “One Year of Modi”. It went chapter and verse into the claims made by the government, ministry-wise, shooting holes in the government’s claims. In fact, the Congress led this counter-offensive; the regional parties, more vocal in parliament, were relatively quieter.

The Congress spokespersons’ arguments went beyond the usual generalities that get trotted out and the party also unleashed its leaders in the state capitals, brought out a booklet, though this should have been released not on the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed one year in office but two weeks earlier, when the ‘celebrations’ began.

The visage of Modi effusively greeting his predecessor Manmohan Singh at 7 Race Course Road on the very day that the former PM ripped into the BJP, defending his UPA government against charges of corruption, was another straw in the wind that Rahul may be gaining credibility, causing some worry in the ruling dispensation. For Singh’s  “courtesy call”, “at the behest of the PM” blunted the impact of his morning  attack against the Modi government. The government’s target is not Singh but Rahul Gandhi.

Many in the party were enthused by the way Rahul took  the bull by the horn, soon after his return, flagging the land issue agitating farmers given the  growing agrarian distress. The land issue was anyway Rahul’s baby and his efforts had led to the passage of the 2013 Bill by the UPA. It is also an emotive issue around which many opposition parties could unite, as they did in parliament, forcing the government to refer it to a joint panel to revisit some of the amendments mooted by the Modi ministry.

Having spoken in parliament no more than five times in 10 years, Rahul spoke, extempore, as many times in as many days after his return, giving heart to his demoralised party. At least, for the moment, the discordant notes which had begun to be raised – from those like Amarinder Singh, Sheila Diixit, her son Sandeep, among others – have died down.

By taking his younger colleagues with him on his padayatras  to the states – he took Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev to Telangana, Jitin Prasada to Kedarnath, Jyotiraditya Scindia to Punjab – he is obviously in the process building his new team, without making too much fuss, as happened earlier, manifesting into a  young versus old divide. There are also signs that Rahul may be more amenable to making peace with the old guard of the party.

There is another change visible in Rahul, noted by his party colleagues. He is no longer speaking only of the poor, dalits, tribals and minorities. He is throwing the net wider. Soon after addressing the farmers at Ram Lila grounds, he immediately put his weight behind “net neutrality” agitating the increasingly powerful group of bloggers, webbers, social networkers and the like. 

And he espoused the cause of home buyers, standing behind middle class Indians wanting to buy a home. And he reached out to the armed forces, by dubbing the delay in unrolling the one rank one pension scheme, first announced by the UPA, as “criminal inaction.”

Challenge for Rahul

As the government responds to the Congress demands – it swung into action on one rank-one pension issue, and made moves to fill the vacancies of the CVC and CIC– and with elections four years away, they might cease to be issues which can gain traction.

The challenge for Rahul and the party, therefore, will be how to maintain the momentum and not lose steam. He is tipped to takeover from Sonia Gandhi as the party president, though the timeline of the transition is not clear. But if delayed beyond a point, he runs the risk of inviting the charge of shirking responsibility again. 

But what, above all, may help Rahul is to be called an opposition leader now, which he may find easier. He was, in fact, referred to as being in “opposition” while his party was in power more because he spoke against the government. Like when he publicly tore up the ordinance on corruption passed by the UPA government and cleared by the Congress’ core committee, which included his mother.

Nothing succeeds like success and at the end of the day, much will depend on the elections that the Congress manages to win in the coming months. The BJP’s eyes are set on the Bihar poll which will determine whether the Modi momentum maintains or it starts to wane. But even if Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad manage to overcome their differences and forge an effective alliance in Bihar along with the Congress, the Congress will only be a junior partner.

The three states which could change the perception about the Congress – and therefore about Rahul Gandhi – are Kerala, Assam and Punjab, which go to polls in 2016 and 2017. But ultimately, the rise in Rahul’s fortunes will be in direct proportion to the fall in Modi’s popularity. Whenever that happens, and provided he stays the course. The mother of all questions, on the minds of Congressmen and women, and indeed of many outside the party is this: Will Rahul Gandhi transit into a 24x7 politician? Only time will tell.

(The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator)

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