2014 Was Chaiwallah vs Shehzada – 2019 to Be Maharaj vs Jan Saathi
The Battle of the Ballot.
The Battle of the Ballot.(Photo: The Quint)

2014 Was Chaiwallah vs Shehzada – 2019 to Be Maharaj vs Jan Saathi

There is talk that Rahul Gandhi may take over the Congress reins soon. The question uppermost on many minds is whether he has it in him to mount a serious challenge to Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

There couldn’t be a better time than now for Rahul’s elevation. Three years into Modi Sarkar, there is a growing perception that Modi’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach has driven the economy into the ground, that his propaganda focus has taken away attention from substantive issues across sectors, and that his government caters mainly to the privileged and operates with contempt for established proprieties.

People have started revisiting their notions of the kind of leadership India needs, are finding Modi’s leadership style incompatible with it, and having a re-look at the Rahul option.

Even as Modi finds himself under unusual levels of heat, the labels that have hobbled Rahul in the past are coming unstuck. The maturity he has demonstrated in public fora lately has surprised those who bought the BJP-peddled ‘Pappu’ label, and singling him out as a dynast isn’t working anymore now that the truth about other political dynasts, particularly BJP dynasts who have passed themselves off as self-made, is out.

The Rahul being rediscovered also comes across as humble, and measured in his speech – a marked contrast to Modi and a far cry from the person right-wing trolls have enjoyed lampooning.

The 2014 contest was pitched as a battle between a tough, visionary commoner (chaiwallah Modi) and a soft, gaffe-prone dynast (shehzada Rahul). Not surprisingly, it was a no-contest. The next face-off cannot be similarly pitched. The chaiwallah has revealed himself capable of emperor-like whim and imperiousness, the shehzada of commoner-like humility and empathy. Roles stand reversed in the battle of 2019.

If the Congress plays it cards well, the fight amenable to be pitched as one between a maharaj and a jan-saathi.

Besides his own positioning, the other thing that could work for Rahul in 2019 is the projected state of play in several large states. An understanding between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) is not beyond the scope of imagination anymore, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) next-gen is showing serious spunk. Confronted with these, a potentially rejuvenated Congress, and the disadvantage of ‘double anti-incumbency’ in the states it governs, the BJP will not find to easy to repeat its impressive 2014 showing in the Hindi belt.

As for the newer territories the BJP has been targeting to make up for the losses it anticipates in the Hindi belt (states like Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal), there is greater likelihood of strongly-positioned regional forces running with the Congress either pre- or post-polls. In sum, the 2019 prognosis for the BJP is not as healthy as it would have us believe.

Whether Rahul capitalises on all this will depend largely on whether he sustains his current momentum and assembles the right team, ground-level up. And this is where doubts about his chances of besting Modi arise.

It is not too difficult to recall past occasions when Rahul has stepped up energetically, grabbed public mindspace, and then retreated into a shell, frittering away the goodwill generated. The current occasion is qualitatively different.

Rahul looks like he is in for the long haul – and it would be unfortunate for both the Congress and democratic-minded Indians invested in the idea of a strong opposition if Rahul were to slacken again.

He must recognise that opportunities for redemption do not come easily and if he were to shun the one currently presented to him, it would not only pave the way for a still more emboldened BJP, but also risks his party’s slide into oblivion.

Rahul and his team’s election management skills need sharpening too. In recent elections, the Congress has often been outsmarted by the BJP when it comes to campaign pitch, candidate selection, and crafting constituency and regional-level voter coalitions.

Contrary to what large sections of the middle class believe, the BJP’s electoral record owes more to smart caste and communal calculations than the vikas pitch.

Modi and Shah may be rattled at the moment, but their election management skills remain formidable and could well make the difference in a close contest.

The only sure Congress counter to this on the ground could come from strategies that tap into the electorate’s pulse to develop counter-narratives, and depend on systematic outreach and ‘hungry’ candidates for their relay. This may sound like basic political wisdom, but it has puzzlingly eluded the Congress for a while.

The winds are gradually but perceptibly turning against Modi, and Rahul – due to his own efforts and a set of favourable political factors – looks positioned to fan it into a full gale. But to achieve that, he will need to remain visible at the forefront and show better judgment in choosing strategists and candidates.

Rahul’s past record at both isn’t flattering but he, and his party, have major incentive to correct it, now that several other pieces have fallen in place.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted @ManishDubey1972 on twitter.)

(This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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