Free Press Journal

Rahul Gandhi 2.0 is taking shape


PTI Photo

In the wake of the plenary, some have offered their resignations from party posts so that “youth and talent from across the country” can find a place at the party’s high table.

The see-saw effect of electoral politics comes into play when a ruling party sinks under the weight of perceived misgovernance and unfulfilled expectations. The rival party, as a result, automatically rises in voters’ esteem and occupies more space in the media.

Hence, the media hype apropos the Congress plenary session earlier this month. The loss of face – and seats – in consecutive bye-elections points to the declining sensex of the BJP and conversely, the rising fortunes of the Congress. Four of the six Lok Sabha seats ceded by the BJP since 2014 went to the Congress and two to the Samajwadi Party.

Rahul Gandhi 2.0 is taking shape, byte by byte. He is relentlessly articulate in public and more accessible and responsive to his party colleagues in private. Party sources say he is broad-basing decision-making by throwing open the hitherto ivory tower central election committee to junior office-bearers. Judging from the lacklustre Congress plenary, however, he is far from ready for a presidential contest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Analysts have noted that the Congress plenary was conducted on a note of “triumphalism”, thanks to the feelgood factor engendered by the BJP’s losses in UP, Bihar and Rajasthan. The main objective of Rahul’s display of aggression, however, was attracting partners. By signalling that the Congress would be the BJP’s main challenger in 2019, it was inviting regional parties to get on board. In effect, a courtship ritual.

Other than that, nothing emerged from the plenary, except to establish that the old guard was on its way out. Lip service was paid to the veterans but they are clearly on the margins in Rahul’s scheme of things. In the wake of the plenary, some have offered their resignations from party posts so that “youth and talent from across the country” can find a place at the party’s high table.

The resolutions tabled were conventional, the ideas offered pedestrian. The Congress seized on unemployment and the agrarian crisis as the issues du jour, but treated them as clubs with which to batter the BJP rather than problems to be addressed. Its proposed new deal for the farm sector comprised the same old promises: loan waivers, more credit, higher MSPs, crop insurance, a special commission for farmers. Nothing we haven’t heard before.

On tackling unemployment, the Congress gameplan was no different from the BJP’s: boost domestic consumption, exports and micro, small and medium enterprises, to fuel growth and job creation. It cribbed about GST and Aadhaar, but has no interest in rolling back either.

What’s more, the Congress proposed a new tax, even while prating of the BJP’s tax terrorism. Far from easing the burden on taxpayers, which would have made sense to the tax-paying classes, it proposed a whopping five per cent cess on “the top one per cent of Indians”, in order to fund scholarships for BPL families, SCs and STs. Who comprises the top one per cent? Nobody knows, but going by surveys, the biggest chunk is salaried employees and households in the upper-middle class segment.

The rather wishy-washy election planks and obvious lack of vision indicate that the Congress is relying on the “see-saw effect” to see it through the 2019 general elections. The more mistakes the BJP makes, the brighter the Congress prospects.

But recent elections have shown that dissonance vis-a-vis the ruling party is not enough to sway voters, who prefer the party which best represents the ‘hope’ factor.  In 2004, the ‘aam aadmi’ slogan captured the public imagination. In 2014, Narendra Modi’s ‘achhe din’ eclipsed Rahul’s ‘mein nahin, hum’. In Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal didn’t need a slogan: his party’s name and symbol were in themselves a promise of change. In Uttar Pradesh, ‘UP mangey badlaav’ carried the day.

The Congress must bear in mind that voters are seeking change, not of government, but of governance. Much of the angst against the ruling NDA has to do with the unrealistic expectations it had raised. Post-electoral cognitive dissonance, to borrow marketing jargon, set in among voters who were seeking instant gratification. It intensified gradually, as it became clear that the goals of doubling farmers’ income, rationalising taxes and the war on corruption were works in progress and would not yield results under Modi’s maiden prime ministerial tenure.

The Congress is predicting a replay of 2004, with both national parties emerging neck-and-neck. But it will need more than dissonance vis-a-vis NDA II to propel itself to a 100+ tally. The challenge is to seize on the ‘hope’ factor and convince voters that ‘achhe din’ are more likely under UPA III than NDA III.

The BJP may be on the defensive, but it is far from being a lame duck. Again and again, the PM has bounced back by seizing control of the narrative. No other politician has displayed a comparable ability to rise to a challenge.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.