Rahul Gandhi’s first anniversary as Congress president couldn’t have come at a better time, with the party having snatched three key Hindi heartland states from the BJP in the recent Assembly elections.
On Sunday, 16 December, the day Gandhi completed a year as party president, he received an important endorsement – DMK President MK Stalin said that “Rahul Gandhi should be prime minister” at a joint Opposition meet in Chennai. This is significant as the DMK is predicted to get a substantial haul of seats in Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha elections.
But Gandhi still has a long way to go – both in terms of getting the support of other Opposition parties as well as taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For the record, Gandhi has said that “defeating BJP is the key” and that the “prime minister question can be addressed after the Lok Sabha elections.” But the issue is bound to come up sooner than that.
So where does Rahul Gandhi’s popularity stand in comparison to PM Modi and the other competitors from within the Opposition ranks? Data from various surveys can help us get a better picture.
Rahul Gandhi is Catching up to PM Modi
According to a C-Voter ‘State of The Nation’ tracker released in October this year, the gap between PM Modi and Gandhi was the widest in 2017 at 56 percent.
This initial gap is understandable. Cut back to 2017 – Congress had suffered a huge defeat in Uttar Pradesh, where the party had contested elections in a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party. Though it won Punjab, its first state victory since 2014, the credit largely went to Captain Amarinder Singh. In July the same year, Bihar slipped out of Congress’ hands, with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar shifting loyalties to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The BJP was at its peak and the Opposition seemed to have no answers.
However, in the past one year, Gandhi has closed the gap significantly – from 56 percent to 31 percent.
The Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey conducted in May this year estimates that the gap is even lower, at 10 percent – 34 percent want Modi to be the prime minister while 24 percent opted for Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress president does even better among Dalits and Adivasis. According to the survey, Gandhi is just seven percentage points behind Modi as the prime ministerial choice for Adivasis, and among Dalits, both the leaders are equally matched.
The surveys conducted by both C-Voter as well as Lokniti-CSDS indicate that things began changing for Gandhi towards the end of 2017 and this momentum continued through 2018. The turning point appears to have been the Assembly elections in Gujarat – where the Congress gave a scare to PM Modi and BJP President Amit Shah in their home state – as well as Gandhi’s appointment as the party chief.
Another survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in January 2018, barely a month after these two events, captures a few key aspects of Gandhi’s rise. For instance, in the South, Gandhi’s popularity exceeded that of PM Modi although he was far behind in the North and East.
Rahul Gandhi’s lead in the South is despite the fact that the Congress isn’t a major player in two states – Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – and has faced a drubbing in two others – Telangana and Kerala.
Interestingly, even in Telangana, Gandhi is more popular than Modi as the prime ministerial choice. According to a survey by TV5 News, 41.3 percent people in Telangana want Gandhi to be the next prime minister as opposed to 35.1 percent who chose Modi. The survey should be taken seriously as it had accurately predicted the final vote share of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Opposition-led Prajakutami in the recently held Assembly elections.
The Lokniti-CSDS survey in the South as well as the TV5 News opinion poll for Telangana indicate that even people who are not Congress supporters at the state-level picked Gandhi as their choice of PM. For instance, the TV5 News survey said that Congress support at 30 percent was much lower than Gandhi’s approval rating. This suggests that a number of TRS, TDP, AIMIM supporters may have picked Gandhi as their PM choice.
Between 2017 and 2018, Gandhi’s popularity also grew significantly in western and central India. This could be correlated to the Congress’ rise in the region as reflected in the party’s victory in the recent assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and its respectable performance in last year’s assembly elections in Gujarat.
Is Rahul Gandhi More ‘Likeable’ Than PM Modi?
An aspect that has emerged in the surveys is that even though Rahul Gandhi might be behind PM Modi in terms of people who “strongly like” him, he is also less disliked. As a result, his ‘Net Likeability’ – i.e. the percentage of people who like him minus the percentage of people who dislike him – is more than that of the prime minister. Also, a large number of people surveyed chose the “somewhat like” option for Gandhi. PM Modi, in contrast, evoked stronger likes and dislikes from the respondents.
Another finding is that some people have changed their minds about Gandhi. According to the May 2018 Lokniti-CSDS survey, 29 percent of those who said they like Rahul Gandhi used to dislike him earlier. Conversely, 35 percent of those who dislike Modi said they used to like the PM earlier
However, there are state-wise variations as far as likeability is concerned. For instance, PM Modi was way more popular than Gandhi in Rajasthan. In fact, the Congress president is more disliked than liked in the state. On the other hand, Gandhi is marginally more liked than PM Modi in Madhya Pradesh.
Tussle Within the Opposition
The contest with PM Modi is only one part of Gandhi’s story. Before he can emerge as a candidate against the prime minister, the Congress president has to first overcome other claimants from within the Opposition such as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and BSP supremo Mayawati.
In the May 2017 Lokniti-CSDS ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey, only 39 percent of Congress voters said that Gandhi is their choice of prime minister. That means that a majority of those who identified themselves as Congress supporters weren’t convinced about Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. He has come a long way in the past year-and-a-half.
According to the India Today-Karvy ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey in August this year, 46 percent respondents said that among Opposition leaders, Gandhi was the best alternative to PM Modi. His closest competitor was Mamata Banerjee at 8 percent.
Not surprisingly, the highest support for Gandhi was witnessed in South and West India, with 56 percent and 52 percent respondents considering him the best alternative to PM Modi. However, the figures were much lower in the North and East, at 36 percent and 42 percent.
In terms of religious communities, there isn’t a lot of variation between Hindus and Muslims as far as support for Gandhi is concerned – 45 percent Hindus and 47 percent Muslims chose him over other Opposition leaders to take on PM Modi. This is a little surprising, as Muslims would traditionally be expected to consolidate behind the most prominent anti-BJP leader. On the other hand, Banerjee’s support among Muslims (14 percent) is significantly higher than among Hindus (8 percent).
Gandhi’s popularity or the lack of it in various regions and sections seems correlated to his acceptability among potential allies. While southern parties like the DMK, TDP and JD-S find it beneficial to ally with Gandhi’s Congress, parties from the North and East (Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal) are far more lukewarm. Gandhi will have to work towards both wooing these parties as well as expanding his popularity in these regions. The other factor that the Congress president would need to work on is reaching out to the youth. Surveys indicate that his popularity his risen more among middle-aged and elderly voters as opposed to younger voters, among whom PM Modi continues to be popular.
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