Road Ahead for Rahul: Alliances and Straight Fights in 2018 & 2019
The big takeaway from the Gujarat result is that although the BJP has won, the Congress lives to fight another day. Having given the Modi-Shah duo the fright of their lives on their home turf and having pared down the BJP’s victory margin to the lowest in 22 years of saffron dominance in the state, the Congress has registered a mini revival of sorts.
The challenge for Rahul Gandhi, now that he has taken over as Congress president, is to build on the gains of Gujarat to recoup his party’s fading political relevance and craft a broad-based coalition of forces that can take on the Modi juggernaut in the 2019 general election.
It is not an easy task by any means, but if Rahul draws the right lessons from Gujarat, Modi, Shah and the BJP will have much to ponder over as they prepare for the big battle due in 2019.
The Gujarat Template Will Bear Fruit
The year ahead is a critical one for both the national parties. All upcoming elections in 2018 are virtually a straight face-off between the BJP and the Congress. And like they did five years ago, they will set the stage for the Lok Sabha polls.
Gujarat provides a template that the Congress can put to good use in 2018, leading into 2019. But there are warning signs too that the party would do well to read.
It is increasingly evident that the BJP flourishes in a multi-cornered contest. A three-way fight in UP split the anti-BJP votes and swept the saffron party to a whopping mandate never seen before in the history of the state. Bihar, on the other hand, was a straight fight as the JD(U), RJD and Congress joined hands in a mahagathbandhan to take on the BJP. The latter lost badly.
In Gujarat, the Congress did something most unlike its traditional self-centred politics. It tried an interesting experiment by co-opting the three activists who had emerged as the angry young faces of Gujarat – Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor.
The creation of this broad-based anti-BJP platform of converging interests swept all other challengers out of the fray and the election became a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress. The voting figures speak for themselves. The Congress, up by a huge percentage of non-BJP votes, was able to rock a party that had not lost an election in Gujarat for 22 years.
Why BJP’s Victory Seems Hollow
What saved the BJP from certain defeat in its bastion was Modi’s campaign. It was high-voltage, personalised, polarising and intensely emotional. Modi addressed 34 rallies, more than he did in UP and Bihar. He appealed to both sub-nationalist pride and the Hindus in Gujarat, and pulled his party back from the brink. But as the final figures show, even that was barely enough.
While a win is a win, the BJP’s victory would seem hollow, given that it has scraped through with its lowest tally ever.
For example, in Karnataka, where polls are due in April-May 2018, an understanding with Deve Gowda’s JD(S) could make the alliance a formidable challenger to the BJP, which hopes to wrest the state from the Congress on a strong anti-incumbency sentiment.
No Substitute for State Leadership
Lesson number two is to choose and nurture strong state leaders. The Congress did not have any in Gujarat and had to depend on Rahul Gandhi completely. As it happens, nor did the BJP. But the BJP has Modi, who is undoubtedly the most charismatic politician in the country today.
However, the BJP cannot use the Gujarat template in states like Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. The Muslim bogey has little traction in these states, which have miniscule minority populations. Nor can Modi invoke subnationalism through his persona here.
In all three states, the BJP has tall local leaders who are chief ministers currently. The Congress will have to identify its own set of leaders to take them on, give them a free hand and not direct operations from Delhi.
An Ashok Gehlot will be a better challenger to Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan than Rahul. Similarly, in MP, the Congress will have to choose between Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, and Rahul must back his nominee fully instead of allowing an internecine battle for which the party is famous.
Don’t Neglect the Core
Lesson number three is that while enlarging its platform to include new forces, the Congress must not ignore its traditional vote base. It gained Patel votes in Gujarat but by outsourcing much of its campaign to Hardik, the party ended up forgetting the tribals who have been traditional Congress supporters. Gujarat has a high tribal population with as many as 27 reserved seats for ST candidates.
Realising that its Patel vote base was shaky, the BJP focused its energies on wooing the tribals to compensate for losses among the Patidars. The strategy seems to have paid it dividends.
No Space for a Reluctant Prince
As the victory in Gujarat proves, narrow though it is, the BJP is a formidable election machine with a super star campaigner in Narendra Modi and a tireless organiser in Amit Shah. The Modi-Shah duo are also 24x7 politicians who must already be planning for the upcoming challenges in 2018.
Rahul Gandhi will have to transform himself from the reluctant prince that he once was into someone who eats, breathes and sleeps politics. For starters, he may have to forego his annual winter vacation this year and get down to revamping his party, choosing his team and strategising for the next election.
Gujarat has given him a much-needed breather. It’s up to him to use it as best as he can.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. 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.)
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