A Surat court has handed Rahul Gandhi and the rest of the Opposition a fortuitous opportunity to sink their differences and come together in a bid to recreate a 1977 moment. The Lok Sabha election that year was the first experiment with opposition unity and it succeeded in ousting Indira Gandhi who seemed invincible till the results came in.
No two historical junctures are the same. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may prove to be shrewder and more in tune with the public mood than Indira Gandhi was. Nor does the current Opposition have stalwarts like it did 46 years ago.
Most of all, it lacks a towering personality like Jayaprakash Narayan whose appeal as an outsider to electoral politics laid the ground for an anti-Indira sentiment to develop through what came to be known as the 'JP movement.'
Yet, comparisons are inescapable. Rahul Gandhi is now out of electoral politics following his two-year jail sentence in a defamation case. This means he is no longer in the race for the PM till the sentence is overturned by a higher court.
Rahul Gandhi Must Leverage the Political Crisis & Play It Smart
If Rahul Gandhi plays it right and deals himself out of the leadership battle with an unambiguous statement to that effect, he will have removed two major obstacles to resetting the electoral battlefield for 2024. One, the opposition will find it easier to hammer out an understanding to present a united challenge to Modi and the BJP. If Gandhi is not a contender anymore, there is a chance that regional satraps may arrive at a working arrangement between themselves and the Congress.
It is no secret that the negotiations with regional leaders failed in 2019 because of the Congress party’s insistence on Rahul Gandhi leading an opposition front. It remains the chief stumbling block even today as evident from anti-Congress outbursts by TMC, AAP, SP, and TRS leaders.
Two, the BJP will lose its prized plank of turning a parliamentary election into a Modi versus Rahul presidential contest. The party is openly smug in its belief that this is its ticket to an easy victory.
The apolitical nature of Rahul Gandhi’s recent Bharat Jodo Yatra and his steadfast refusal to be associated with ongoing assembly elections at the time seem to have worried the BJP. Were these signals that he was dodging Modi’s firepower and could well opt out of the race for PM in 2024?
By singling him out for attack in the second half of the budget session of the Parliament and demanding his expulsion from the Lok Sabha, which coincidentally has happened via a Surat court, the BJP has sought to bring Rahul Gandhi back centerstage, prop him up as Modi’s chief opponent and spread confusion in Opposition ranks to scuttle unity talks. It’s a trap Rahul Gandhi must avoid at all costs.
He would be far better off if he uses the Surat court conviction to take the high moral ground and follow JP’s footsteps to build a national mood through a movement outside of electoral politics. The Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) was a beginning. But now he must hit the road running and do many more walkathons if he wants to whip up public sentiment in favour of a change.
Can Rahul Gandhi Spin a New Narrative That Caters to a New India?
It is probably a tall order expecting Rahul Gandhi to don JP’s mantle and turn the national mood through a popular movement. Jayaprakash Narayan’s shoes are too big to fill for someone who neither has his vast political experience nor his sharp political skills.
What Rahul Gandhi does have, however, is a wealth of snapshots from the lives of common people he encountered during the BJY which took him through 12 states and two union territories from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.
He needs to put these to good use to build a narrative around issues that matter on the ground: price rise, unemployment, better health, education facilities, etc. It’s time to stop dwelling on his lineage, the "sacrifices’’ of the family, and other attendant distractions that don’t mean much to a new generation of voters.
It must be evident to him, his mother Sonia who has pushed him into politics, and to the rest of the Congress that Rahul Gandhi lacks organisational skills as well as the ruthless political streak that Indira Gandhi had.
His strengths are his personable nature and his ability to win over people in one-on-one interactions. He shouldn’t even try to compete with Modi in oratory at big rallies.
It is time for Rahul Gandhi to play to his strengths and for his family and the Congress to allow him to do so. Only then can he survive the offensive the BJP has mounted against him. Only then does the Opposition stand a ghost of a chance to challenge Modi in 2024.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)