City City Bang Bang, Columns

Rahul Gandhi & the political landscape

Perhaps too much can be read into some actions. The return of Rahul Gandhi in a more energized form is news all right. But whether it is sign of a substantially different script for this enigmatic dynastic leader of the Congress is another question. He has done what any significant leader of the opposition should do at the very least- object to the actions of the government and its leader in terms that are somewhat evocative. To believe on the strength of current evidence that something significant is about to change is wishful thinking on the part of those who dearly want to see this government fail.

The biggest issue with the Congress is that it keeps talking about the idea of India, but it does not have an idea for India. What Rahul Gandhi is talking about today is a return to a tired old script, one that he and his advisers have hypnotized themselves into believing in. Without a forward looking message of hope, it will not be possible to connect with the India of today. For this, the Congress needs a new template for the future, which not only does it lack currently, but shows no sign of conceiving.

If Rahul is serious and continues to be so on a consistent basis, then he needs a plan for the next four years. As things stand, it is unlikely that the Congress can win, but there is a possibility that the BJP can be made to lose. At the very least denying its absolute majority and severely curtailing its room for manouevre is an achievable goal. It is easy to see where the BJP might lose seats (UP, Bihar and Rajasthan) and it is by no means clear where it will gain them. Bengal and Tamil Nadu do not seem to hold out the promise they did a year ago.

What this means is that a war of attrition needs to be fought, where the advantage enjoyed by the BJP is gradually blunted state by state. Local alliances need to be built early on ( not too early also, for chances are that these will rest precariously on fragile egos and opportunistic deal making), weaknesses found in local BJP governments and systematically pursued and local leaders of the party be empowered without too much wisdom being presumed by the High Command. The Congress needs to accept that it is fighting for its very survival and the first and most crucial step in that is to stop the Modi juggernaut.

The biggest asset for the BJP is Mr Modi himself and for Rahul Gandhi, the biggest challenge is to find a way to take the sheen off the Modi image. If BJP has to win votes on its own strength or that of its policies and platform, it will do only a little better than other parties. The game changer is Narendra Modi, and this is why attacking him credibly becomes vital for the Congress. The problem for Rahul Gandhi is that he himself lacks the heft and even plausibility to present himself as the challenger- his only option is to find a way to construct a compelling counter-narrative to Modi. Some success has been achieved in this respect thanks to Mr Modi’s blunder with the suit and his troubles with the Land Acquisition Bill, and the label of being anti-poor potentially creates difficulties for him. Mr Modi’s obvious regard for himself is another potential area of weakness which lends itself to narrative building Mr Modi’s obvious regard for himself is a big potential weakness that lends itself to being exploited. In today’s meme-ridden world, he is one selfie away from becoming an internet phenomenon of the wrong kind.

In psychological terms, the opposition would gain if it succeeded making the government more tentative. Both Mr Modi and Mr Shah thrive in an environment of strength and look a little lost when faced with failure. The Delhi results have arguably hurt this government way more than they should have precisely for this reason. A below par outing in Bihar will make things more uncertain. The best bet for the opposition is to make Modi doubt himself, for the more uncertain he becomes, the greater the chances that he will play by the old playbooks of electoral politics, and the greater the ability of the opposition to find comfort.

For the BJP, it might be wise to go easy on its plans to aggressively build an organization in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and work out a workable alliance with Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha. This will give it some much needed relief in its legislative endeavours in the Rajya Sabha. It will also be important to find a way to make a tangible impact on the everyday lives of people. The lessons from the AAP’s victory in Delhi are clear- a small but palpable difference made at the ground level means much more than lofty promises and clever slogans, no matter how charismatically delivered.

282 seemed like a lot, but it is barely over the half way mark, and even a minor slippage means that BJP is back to depending on its allies, a prospect that cannot cause it too much cheer. As things stand, and it really is too early to make this assessment, BJP should feel confident about coming back to power, but unless it acts today, it is not clear if that by itself will be sufficient given the scale of its ambitions.

The re-emergence of Rahul Gandhi has brought some life back to the political landscape of the country, but by itself, it changes little. When the Modi government came to power, it was an unknown quantity, both for its supporters and its detractors. Now that a clearer picture has emerged about the broad intent and style of functioning of the government, it is time for deeper, more long-range strategic thinking on both sides.