Anticipated for long by his party, Rahul Gandhi took over as Congress President on Saturday, an elevation that comes at a time when the party faces an “existential crisis” and has huge electoral challenges in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Gandhi, 47, is the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to take the top position of the 132-year old party. The change at the top comes on the eve of counting of votes in the Assembly polls in Gujarat whose results would be interpreted in terms of Rahul Gandhi’s ability as a campaigner and vote getter for a party that has only slipped from defeat to defeat ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha rout. The party won the Punjab Assembly elections earlier this year. Gandhi would also have to prepare to face the challenge of the next round of assembly polls in 2018 — first in Karnataka and later in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — that will be absolutely crucial for him and the party ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The state elections, with BJP as the key rival, will also be the first major polls directly under Rahul Gandhi’s charge as party chief, who has a formidable rival in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Assembly polls will also be held early next year in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. The challenges for Rahul Gandhi include fostering a new energy and enthusiasm in the Congress and evolving a new strategy to galvanise the party after a string of electoral losses since the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle. The Congress has to work hard at the grassroots to take on the relentless election machine of Modi-led BJP and party chief Amit Shah. Gandhi has to take a call on forging a larger opposition alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls under a “collective leadership” or projecting himself as the alternative against Modi with support of different parties. He was the face of Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Gandhi has been perceived as a reluctant politician due to some of his longish trips abroad, the delay in stepping up to the role of party chief, his not taking up a ministerial responsibility in two UPA governments and not properly following through some of the issues he raised.
Of late, he has been able to counter the perception with his sharp and aggressive attacks on Modi and the BJP. A trip to the United States where he had had interactions with think tanks appeared to have done a sea change to the image about him. In Gujarat, where success will be a big morale booster for the Congress, Gandhi has sought to create a broad social coalition and has forced Modi to react. Congress’ only major success since its debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls has been Punjab, while the BJP, in comparison, has tremendously expanded its footprint by winning states it had never done in the past. The BJP is making efforts to expand its base in states it has been weak, including West Bengal, Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Another major challenge for Rahul Gandhi is to revive Congress in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the largest contingent of 80 MPs to Parliament. Gandhi has twice led the party’s campaign in the assembly polls but had come a cropper. The results of the recent local body polls in Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, have not been flattering for his image.
Congress has shrunk electorally, being now the fourth player in states such as Bihar, third in states such as West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu as also Delhi. In the polls held to various assemblies since 2014, it has largely finished third or fourth. Sections, which were strongly with the party including Dalits, have drifted away. Rahul Gandhi had been projected as a young leader who understands the language and idiom of the youth but Modi has been more successful in weaning away the section that has large electoral presence. The Congress also has to devise ways to woo the large middle class. Gandhi, who is stepping into the shoes of his mother Sonia Gandhi who helmed Congress for 19 years including 10 as the chief of the party heading the ruling coalition at the Centre, will need to be dexterous in his dealings with allies as also other opposition parties such as the CPI-M. The crumbling of the ruling alliance in Bihar has been a setback for the party. Senior leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad have a comfort level with Sonia Gandhi and it remains to be seen how Rahul Gandhi fits into the role. Within the party, Gandhi has to take several decisions including whether to project chief ministerial candidates in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and who they will be.
Bringing about unity in faction-ridden state units and making the balance between the “old guard” and the younger aspirants will be other challenges. Congress had to project nonagenarian Virbhadra Singh as chief ministerial candidate in Himachal Pradesh in the absence of a younger acceptable option. Congress is now ruling only five states and a union territory and if it loses Gujarat and Karanataka next year, its chances of staging a comeback in 2019 will be further squeezed. Though Rahul Gandhi’s experiments to democratise the party’s youth organisations have not entirely succeeded, he has had some political successes, including forcing the Modi government to go back on its proposed changes in the Land Acquisition Act. The concerted opposition attack on the “flawed” implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as also perception of unease among traders in poll-bound Gujarat has apparently forced the government to extend several concessions.
But the Congress or other opposition parties could not reap political dividends on demonetisation though it caused a lot of inconvenience to people. Though Gandhi had promised to “involve people in ways you cannot even imagine now” after the party lost in Delhi in the 2013 assembly polls, the party fared far worse in the next polls. Gandhi, who is into his third term as Lok Sabha MP, was made party Vice President in 2013 as a stepping stone to his eventual elevation.