Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s hasty disqualification from Lok Sabha in the wake of his conviction in a criminal defamation case and the threat his two-year sentence poses to his electoral career a year before the 2024 general election have finally jolted his party into aggressive street politics. As many as 18 Opposition parties, including the Trinamool Congress, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, and Aam Aadmi Party, which had hitherto flayed the Congress repeatedly for its inability to take on the BJP, have also rallied in Rahul’s support, crying foul over “death of democracy” under the Narendra Modi regime.
The resultant kerfuffle has led many Opposition leaders and commentators to make euphoric claims about an inflection point in Indian politics. All-weather political astrologers are proclaiming that the ruling BJP, rattled by Rahul and the Opposition’s relentless attacks over industrialist Gautam Adani’s dubious business practices that have allegedly been patronised, promoted, and protected by the Prime Minister himself, has made a fatal miscalculation.
The “greatest gift” from BJP to Cong
Rahul has called his disqualification the “greatest gift” the BJP could give him and the Opposition a year before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. His sister and Congress general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, who is expected to now take centre stage in her party’s mass mobilisation efforts, told her colleagues during a protest at Rajghat that “things will start changing quickly from today”. Sundry Opposition leaders have quoted that clichéd Sanskrit adage — “vinaash kalay vipareet buddhi” — to assert that an end to the BJP’s rule is near.
Also read: Why is BJP solely focused on discrediting Rahul Gandhi?
There is also a palpable sense of optimism within the echo chamber of bleeding-heart liberals who have been desperately searching for indicators that may suggest Modi and Amit Shah’s cunning political manoeuvres and their Midas touch vis-a-vis the Indian electorate are nearing an expiry date. According to them, the BJP’s ripostes — claims about the actions against Rahul being the result of the due process of law, attempts to paint Rahul’s “defamatory” remarks as proof of his “anti-OBC mindset”, Modi’s likening of evolving Opposition unity with a “Bhrashtachari Bachao Abhiyan” (campaign to save the corrupt), and his bluster about waging war against corruption and ushering in equitable development, neither of which had been seen in years before 2014 — are regurgitated tropes that won’t help the party electorally.
There is no denying that events of the past few days have infused the Congress with an uncharacteristic fighting spirit. Notwithstanding the legal battle that lies ahead for Rahul to have his sentence stayed, or at least reduced, or the perception that his legal team mishandled the trial and is now dragging its feet on filing an appeal, the political reaction from the Congress has been prompt and scathing.
The solidarity coming Rahul’s way from a majority of the Opposition bloc — 18 parties at last count — arguably shows promise of driving a hitherto-fractured Opposition, replete with leaders of fragile egos and competing ambitions, towards that evasive electoral unity against the BJP. The ongoing Budget session of Parliament has seen 19 Opposition parties come together for a coordinated floor strategy while 14 of them have also formed a legal coalition outside Parliament to move the Supreme Court seeking pre- and post-arrest guidelines in cases slapped against countless Opposition leaders by a government brazenly misusing probe agencies to target rivals.
So far, so good. But what next? Are these predictions of a formidable anti-Modi electoral coalition taking shape, riding on a “Save Democracy” narrative reminiscent of Jayaprakash Narayan’s clarion call for overthrowing the autocratic Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime in the post-Emergency 1977 general elections, merely a projection of the common desire of the Opposition and the secular-liberal commentariat to see the BJP regime routed.
Also read: Rahul disqualification: 10 things Priyanka Gandhi said during Congress satyagraha
Are such hopeful projections ignoring apparent political realities? The events of the past few days may have given anti-BJP voices — political and social — enough reasons to cheer but there were also enough signs — some new, some manifestations of pre-existing home truths — that betray such optimism or, in the least, demand caution and correction.
Since Rahul and the Congress have become the fulcrum of this new churn, let’s begin with them. The standard explanation from the Congress for all that is unfolding is that the ruling BJP and Modi, in particular, have been rattled by Rahul twice over — first by the massive public response to the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) and then by the former Congress president’s pointed questions to the Prime Minister over the Adani issue. Thus, all tools at the Centre’s disposal have been marshalled to neutralise Rahul. The Congress communications chief, Jairam Ramesh, has repeatedly asserted that the BJY has enthused his party workers at the grassroots and claimed that the 4000+ km walkathon from Kanyakumari to Srinagar has finally given the country an alternative political vision that will triumph over the BJP’s vision of Hindutva hegemony.
Little evidence of electoral benefits
It cannot be disputed that Rahul’s BJY was a huge success. It drew massive crowds and brought to the vanguard of political discourse real issues — unemployment, economic distress, growing communal strife, the threat from China, et al. It is also true that Rahul is a rare Opposition leader who has been consistent and relentless in his broadsides against Modi’s politics and policies.
However, Ramesh’s assertion of Rahul having reinvigorated the Congress enough to actually decimate the BJP electorally appears to be a gross exaggeration. For one, what Ramesh says of Rahul may be true but these evidently remain Rahul’s personal achievements from which there is little evidence of any significant electoral benefits accruing to the Congress.
Also read: Rahul’s disqualification: Why it’s a blessing in disguise for Congress in Kerala
Take, for example, the Congress’s Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyan (HSHJA). The campaign, which began on January 26, was mooted as a “political extension” of the BJY under which party leaders and workers were asked to cover every single village and polling booth in the country over two months. Through the course of the campaign, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul, and Priyanka were supposed to address multiple rallies across state capitals while state-level leaders were meant to ensure that the message of Rahul’s BJY and the Congress’s “chargesheet” against the Modi regime reaches every single voter. The campaign was supposed to conclude on March 26 but was later quietly extended by a month.
This writer spoke to multiple Congress leaders across various states. Most of them conceded that the response to HSHJA has been lukewarm at best and that in most states, including poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana, it was a struggle to even find volunteers for door-to-door outreach. Understandably, Ramesh and other party leaders rarely speak about the HSHJA anymore. They are now focused on ensuring that Rahul’s second leg of the BJY, this time from Arunachal to Gujarat, is finalised quickly.
Little change under Kharge
Organisationally, Kharge has been unable to bring in any changes that would infuse the party with new energy. Over a month has passed since the party’s much-publicised 85th Plenary Session in Raipur but Kharge has been unable to reconstitute the Congress Working Committee or rejig the party to weed out a bevy of non-performing office bearers.
Furthermore, the strident pitch Rahul had made during the BJY on addressing people’s issues of unemployment, price rise, communal and social harmony, economic distress, etc. has been derailed by a singular focus on the Adani issue. Now, with the Congress on the warpath against the BJP over Rahul’s disqualification, the people-centric politics that Rahul espoused may be relegated even further down in the party’s pecking order of issues that must take precedence.
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Some in the Congress seem to be convinced that Rahul’s disqualification would evoke a public sympathy that could equal, if not surpass, the sentiments triggered in Indira Gandhi’s favour when the Janata government sought to obtusely target her after the Emergency with similar tools of disqualifying her from Parliament and arresting her on sundry charges. Fortunately, though, no one in the Congress has, so far, spoken of yet another “Belchi moment” for Rahul.
Congress a caricature of former self
Congress members drawing parallels between Rahul and Indira conveniently gloss over some obvious ground realities. In Indira’s time, the Congress, despite its electoral rout of 1977, was still a formidable political force against the bumbling Janata experiment. Indira, unlike Rahul, was a shrewd and consummate politician who wouldn’t blink twice before making a political move she thought was to her advantage even if it wasn’t strictly moral.
The Congress today is a shabby caricature of what it was four decades ago, having lost a chunk of its pan-India political footprint, as well as its ability to connect with the masses. The political idioms of plurality, inclusion, socio-economic justice that Rahul wants to push forth have been repeatedly rendered ineffective by the idioms of hypernationalism, Hindutva dominance, and brazen misrepresentation of history that Modi employs.
As such, the complication in believing claims that Rahul’s disqualification or the Congress’s “Save Democracy” pitch would become rallying points for the Indian electorate against the BJP is apparent. If experiences of the past decade are anything to go by, the Congress is once again making the same mistake of turning the 2024 Lok Sabha polls into a clash of personalities — Rahul and Modi — instead of canvassing on Rahul’s own preferred plank of a people-centric politics. Rahul may want to ask himself and his party colleagues what would yield a better electoral harvest for the Congress — an unremitting belligerence on the issue of his disqualification or a trenchant campaign against the Centre’s highly flawed track record on communal polarisation, unemployment, skyrocketing prices, Chinese transgressions, L’affaire Adani, Agniveer, and so on.
The claim of Opposition unity
Let us now look at the other baffling claim of Opposition unity. This perception largely stems from the coming together of Opposition parties during the ongoing Budget session for a coordinated floor strategy against the BJP, more so since Rahul’s conviction and subsequent ouster from the Lok Sabha. While it is true that 19 Opposition parties have, for the first time in a long time, presented a united front against the BJP, is it really accurate to say that this current union will last till, if not beyond, the Lok Sabha polls?
The trust deficit between the currently uniting Opposition parties is an open secret. Several of these parties rushing to show solidarity with Rahul — particularly the Trinamool, BRS and AAP — are doing so not because they have forfeited their fanciful claims of being a viable alternative to the BJP.
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Top-line leaders of most of these parties are facing investigations by one or the other central probe agency and have, like the Congress, claimed that they are being targeted by the Modi regime solely on account of being Opposition leaders. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s closest aides, Manish Sisodia and Satyender Jain, BRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao’s daughter K Kavitha, and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee are just a few such examples. It suits each of these parties, as well as others from the Opposition, to join ranks with the Congress in claiming that the Centre is unleashing probe agencies to intimidate or neutralise BJP’s rivals.
In politics, trust is always a difficult needle to thread, and the Opposition parties speaking of unity have proven this time and again. Even as they stand in solidarity with Rahul, leaders from the AAP, Trinamool, BRS, and Samajwadi Party have made it clear that theirs was an issue-based support to the Congress and this shouldn’t be seen as acceptance of the Grand Old Party’s primacy within the Opposition bloc; nor must it be construed as a sign for any poll alliance taking shape in the foreseeable future.
Even among existing allies of the Congress, tensions have been all too apparent. Rahul’s unnecessary “I am not Savarkar” remark nearly jeopardised the Congress’s alliance with the Uddhav Thackeray faction of the Shiv Sena. The situation was salvaged only after Sonia Gandhi personally requested NCP chief Sharad Pawar to negotiate a truce after Shiv Sena (Uddhav) skipped a dinner meeting of Opposition leaders hosted by Kharge. Rahul had to finally take a step back and, behind closed doors, assure Sena’s Sanjay Raut that uncharitable references to VD Savarkar will not be made by the Congress moving forward.
Also read: Savarkar row: Congress to tone down attack after Pawar’s intervention
It has also not escaped anyone that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose government has the Congress as a junior partner, has refused to comment on Rahul’s disqualification. Pawar’s NCP has been maintaining a studied silence on the Adani issue. The Congress and the Trinamool continue to attack each other in Bengal. A similarly recurring clash can be seen in Telangana between the BRS and the Congress. In Delhi and Punjab, the Congress ironically echoes the BJP’s criticism of the AAP regime. Kejriwal has also made it clear that his party would carry on with its expansion plans in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh — all due for polls at the end of this year — irrespective of any damage this may inflict on the Congress in its battle against the BJP in these largely bipolar states.
Most Opposition parties doubt the Congress’s ability to take on the BJP electorally. They want the Grand Old Party to merely be a facilitator of Opposition unity and give up its claim to leading such a formation. This is clearly a proposition that is unacceptable to the Congress though Kharge, sources say, has been trying to navigate this tricky road by imploring Opposition outfits to first focus on a united strategy for defeating the BJP and then settling the question of the Opposition front’s leadership.
Delhi still far away for Congress
Within the Congress, many believe that the party has bright prospects of electoral recovery in the major Assembly elections due this year, beginning with Karnataka that goes to polls on May 10. A win for the Congress in Karnataka, Rajasthan (the party is still struggling there to settle the turf war between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot), Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, coupled with some recovery in Telangana, is bound to change the perception of the party among Opposition parties and the public at large and add heft to claims of an anti-BJP wave gathering momentum ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
However, as it has often been the case with the Congress in the past, such victories could also turn the party electorally complacent. Besides, a slew of Assembly victories is no guarantee of a similar re-run in the general elections. The Congress had won multiple Assembly polls in 2018 but suffered a resounding defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Similarly, the BJP was on victory spree in 2003 but suffered a shock defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.
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In politics, as the cliché goes, a week is a long time. The next general elections are over a year away. The BJP may appear vulnerable today in the wake of the Opposition’s realignment and the Congress’s blitzkrieg over Rahul’s disqualification. However, robust claims of an inflection point being reached run a real risk of being as misleading as today’s India being the “mother of democracies”. The Congress and the wider Opposition have much ground to cover. How they do so depends more on their own convictions than any pronounced by a court against their leaders.