Fifth column by Tavleen Singh: A Congress revival?

The results from Himachal show that obituaries for the party of our freedom movement cannot be written yet even if it has become a frail caricature of the political colossus it once used to be.

Narendra Modi, rahul gandhi, himachal pradesh elections 2022, gujarat elections 2022, congress revival,
Congress workers celebrates the party's victory in Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Kullu (PTI Image)

As I watched the results come in last week from Gujarat and Himachal, I found myself dwelling on the dissimilarities between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi — an exercise I recommend to anyone with the smallest interest in Indian politics. With the general election’s shadow looming ever closer, every state election must be seen as a rehearsal for 2024, and, so far, it is only the Congress Party, whose de facto leader remains Rahul Gandhi, that has some chance of taking on the Modi juggernaut. The results from Himachal show that obituaries for the party of our freedom movement cannot be written yet even if it has become a frail caricature of the political colossus it once used to be.

The problem with our oldest political party is that the heir to the Dynasty, which has controlled it for decades, seems to be going through a severe crisis of identity. Does Rahul Gandhi want to be a political or a spiritual leader? Is his Bharat Jodo Yatra social work or politics? As someone who dismissed it as a well-meaning enterprise that is unlikely to bring political gain, I have made it a point to pay close attention to the speeches Rahul Gandhi has made while walking across India.

His speeches have left me puzzled and a little worried. They reveal more confusion than clarity. There are speeches in which Rahul Gandhi has said that he is not interested in political power, but only in ending hatred and spreading peace and love. These speeches have made him sound like a wandering Prophet, not a serious political leader. The wild, greying beard enhances this impression. There are other speeches that have been deliberately and provocatively political, like the one he gave in Rajasthan last week in which he declared that the Congress Party has a record of delivering on its promises to voters.

Also Read: Himachal Pradesh new CM and Dy CM to be sworn-in on December 11: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge

Perhaps. But if this message had gone home to voters, then under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi Congress would not have totted up a long list of lost elections. If he found time last week to listen to the Prime Minister’s victory speech, Rahul would have discovered that fulfilling election promises is what Modi believes has won the BJP an astounding seventh term in Gujarat with more seats in the legislature than anyone ever had before. Young voters know that the BJP delivers, he said, as cries of Modi, Modi, Modi rose from his audience of party workers; they know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to development. There is no question that the Gujarat election was won because of Modi’s enduring popularity, not because of any improvements in his Gujarat model.

This so-called model has been severely dented since Modi became prime minister, which is why the last chief minister and almost all his ministers were kicked out by the BJP’s central command last year. Even after this major surgery, flaws like corruption, crony capitalism and misgovernance were exposed in the Gujarat model when a bridge collapsed in Morbi in October. The BJP won all three seats in this constituency despite the shameful protection that has been accorded to the owner of the company whose criminal negligence caused the deaths of 141 people, most of whom were women and children. It is fair to say that if it had not been for Modi’s personal popularity and relentless campaigning, the results in Gujarat could have been very different. The absence of Rahul Gandhi and pesky but persistent presence of Arvind Kejriwal certainly helped. But in the end, this was Modi’s election and Modi’s victory.

We come back to the big questions. What role does Rahul Gandhi wish to play in the future of India? Does he plan to lead the Congress Party into the next general election, or is he planning to play the role of a weird sort of spiritual guide? If it is the latter, then he needs to be warned that there is little role for spiritual guides in politics, which is probably why the Mahatma himself stayed away from politics after India won freedom and became a modern nation. If Rahul indeed wants to wander about India spreading love and goodness, instead of winning elections, he must make way for a younger and better Congress President than the one backed by him and his family.

The results from Himachal prove that the Congress Party can still win elections if it wants to, and that these elections can be won without the ‘charisma’ of the Dynasty. This is a good sign. But there is work to be done if the Congress Party is to be in any shape to offer Modi a real challenge in 2024. Under Modi, the BJP has become an electoral machine in which every screw is constantly scrutinised and kept oiled and ready.

Under Rahul, the opposite has happened to the Congress Party. Every screw of the organisational structure has come loose and there has been a total investment instead in the ability of the Gandhi name to continue winning votes. In the last general election, the only new idea that Rahul could come up with was to bring his sister into electoral politics. Modi won a second term in office easily. Unless Rahul starts putting as much effort into rebuilding the party as he has into the Yatra, there will be no contest in 2024.

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First published on: 11-12-2022 at 05:30 IST
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