Rahul Gandhi's first real test
CAN CONGRESS ACE GUJARAT POLLS?
The timing of Rahul Gandhi's ascent is propitious. It can even be said that it is just as well that the Congress waited till now for the coronation of the crown prince because, for the first time since the party's humiliating defeat three years ago, its supporters can afford to wear a faint smile.
The reason is that there are signs that the dark clouds which hung over the party are slowly lifting. One silver lining was its massive victory in the Gurdaspur by-election in Punjab and another was the success of the party's student wing in the Delhi University Student Union elections and the ABVP's defeat, albeit at the hands of the Congress's ally, the Samajwadi Party's student wing, in Allahabad University.
Since the ABVP is associated with the BJP, its setback is of considerable significance, especially when there are reports that BJP is not too comfortably placed in the forthcoming local body elections in UP.
But these are not the only reasons why Rahul's anointment as the Congress president is taking place at the right time. A greater cause for satisfaction in the Congress is the widespread belief that the BJP has started feeling the heat of public dissatisfaction.
As a result, the ruling party at the centre has been showing signs of nervousness. These are evident from Narendra Modi's frequent visits to Gujarat to shower sops by taking advantage of the delay in the announcement of the poll dates by the Election Commission, the Prime Minister's castigation of the Congress for all of the state's ills despite the BJP's long stint in power there, the party's tantrums over unflattering references to demonetisation and GST in a Tamil film called Mersal and the attempt to prevent any discussion on the business deals of BJP chief Amit Shah's son.
Rahul, therefore, is facing the first real test of his short career because of the opportunity which the Congress has got at long last to trip up the BJP. Up until now, the Congress vice-president had given the impression of being a dilettante – a part-timer in politics as he has been called, who doesn't have his heart in the profession.
The time he spent, therefore, in Dalit huts with a bottle of mineral water at hand was mocked as a case of slumming. His strident declarations of intent to fight for the rights of the Niyamgiri tribals in Odisha, or distressed farmers in Bhatta Parsaul in UP, or in favour of Kalavati, the farmer's wife in Vidarbha, were seen as flashes in the pan and not to be taken seriously.
Now, however, it is a somewhat different. The shrillness which marked his speeches in Parliament is gone. Instead, an element of sobriety and maturity is discernible as when he welcomed Yogi Adityanath's loan waivers for farmers and condemned the murder of an RSS worker in UP.
His comment that even if the BJP speaks of a Congress-mukt Bharat, he will not want an India where the BJP has no place has been approvingly noted. As has been his earlier admission that Modi is a better communicator than him.
The stage is set, therefore, for the Congress vice-president to pose a serious challenge to the BJP's vikas purush. To do so, however, he will have to highlight the Congress' fundamental differences from the saffron camp by emphasising the 132-year-old party's inclusiveness, which shuns polarisation, projects a scientific outlook, which does not believe in the imagined therapeutic value of cow's urine, and has respect for institutional autonomy, which rules out planting party apparatchiki on august organisations.
More than in Himachal Pradesh, it is Gujarat where a battle royale is due. On the face of it, the BJP has the upper hand because of the 10 per cent difference between it and Congress in the state where the Assembly elections are concerned.However, there is a significant reduction in the difference in the Parliamentary polls although the BJP still remains ahead of the Congress. For instance, in 2004, the BJP's percentage was 47.3 compared to the Congress's 43.8.
Moreover, the Congress won 12 Lok Sabha seats, which is equivalent to 90 Assembly constituencies, while the BJP won 14. Two years earlier in the Assembly elections in 2002, the BJP won 127 seats (49.8 per cent) and the Congress 51 (39.2 per cent)
In 2009, the BJP's vote share was 46.5 per cent while the Congress's was 43.4. Again, two years earlier in 2007, the BJP's percentage was 49.1 and the Congress's 38. The figures were nearly identical in 2012 with the BJP securing 47.8 per cent and the Congress 38.9.
As is known, 2014 was the year of Modi's triumph. So, it is not surprising that the BJP won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat with a percentage of 59.1 while the Congress brought up the rear with zero seats and 32.9 per cent.
If the 2014 results are kept aside, it can be said that the Congress's best performances in recent years were in 2004 and 2009 when it won 43 per cent of the votes. That was when the BJP was riding high in the state with Modi at the helm. Now, it is a different story. Can the Congress cash in on the difference?
(The author is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal.)