Just when “pappu”, the word used in derision to refer to Congress President Rahul Gandhi, had quietly made its exit from India’s political lexicon, it has made a surprising comeback. His national ally, the CPM, has resurrected it.
Created by the BJP-RSS camp, pappu came into being when Rahul Gandhi emerged as a challenger to Narendra Modi. The term was used extensively by the rightwing camp and supporters of Modi to denigrate Rahul Gandhi and project him as a figure of ridicule who was no match for the “might” of the prime minister.
Over time, pappu started to grate. When the BJP lost to the Congress in last year’s Assembly elections in key northern states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, soul-searching in the Modi camp threw up “pappu” as one among the reasons. Some sections within the BJP-RSS felt that the term had outlived its utility and was starting to earn sympathy for Rahul Gandhi. Before long, pappu had evaporated from social media and from all the rhetoric of the Modi camp.
For the CPM to resurrect “pappu” (the party subsequently apologised terming it a “mindless mistake” for using this in an editorial in its party organ Deshabhimani) it means all is not well with the opposition. Take the latest issue, that of Rahul contesting from Wayanad. The Left Front is seething with anger on the Congress leader’s choice.
The reason for this is that the Congress-led UDF and the CPM-led LDF are rivals in Kerala, a State where the BJP has minimal presence. In the Left view, Rahul’s choice of Wayanad is bound to lead to a situation where the two will have to seriously contest each other despite being allies in Delhi. Leaving the seat uncontested to make way for Rahul will have adverse implications for the Left in Kerala in other seats and possibly a long-term impact on it in Assembly elections.
For the Congress, the Wayanad seat is the safest bet in the South as the constituency is a party stronghold. Probably, in their calculations, the party think tank felt that the Left would not seriously challenge Rahul if he contested there. That may still be the case, but the signals it sends across the cadre within the state may prove difficult for the Left to underplay.
A sign of how things stand
That pappu made a comeback in this fashion is an indication of the problems the opposition is facing in many states in its attempts to stitch a formidable alliance against the BJP. Having seen the wave of opposition to the saffron party in last year’s Assembly polls, the opposition fancied its chances of unseating Modi in the forthcoming elections. But the nitty-gritty of alliance-making has proved to be trickier than anticipated.
The Congress, which benefited from the BJP’s loss in the Assembly elections last year, has been unable to decide where it stands among the opposition. It appears that the party is torn between trying to lead the coalition and just being a part of it in a relatively minor role. In an attempt to force itself on its allies, the Congress has alienated the Trinamool Congress in Bengal, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and now the Left Front in Kerala.
Kerala’s veteran Left Front leader VS Achutanandan described Rahul Gandhi as “Amul baby” to mean someone who is not in tune with the nuances of politics and is “cutting the branch of the tree he is sitting on” by goofing up on the party’s choices.
What confounds voters, especially those planning to vote against the BJP, is the inability of the Congress to promote a rock-solid opposition alliance that will prove formidable at the hustings. Instead the Congress appears worried over its future in the event it does not lead the opposition coalition. By its prevarications across key states it has managed to make the so-called Grand Alliance (Mahagatbandhan) look anything but grand.
The party leadership led by Rahul Gandhi has not been able to reconcile to the fact that the SP-BSP has given it just two seats, when the reality is that the Congress has lost its support wholesale in the state and it cannot expect to get anything sizeable. Similar is the case in Bengal where the TMC will not allow more space to the Congress than necessary as the BJP is already snapping at its heels and chief minister Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to lose hold.
In Delhi too, the AAP with its resounding victory in the 2015 Assembly elections, which wiped out the Congress, is the party with the bigger say. But the Congress is unable to reconcile to this and an alliance is not happening.
In Karnataka, the Congress has managed to hold its own because it propped up a minority partner, the Janata Dal (Secular), and allowed it to lead the government. At the grassroots there are problems between the workers of the two parties, but it has been managed better here than the other states. In fact, the question is when the Congress was able to work this in Karnataka why did it not follow a similar example in others and take a backseat in the larger interests of the opposition.
BJP the beneficiary
Any which way, the beneficiary of the confusion in the opposition ranks is probably the BJP, which looked out of sorts after the shock losses in the Hindi heartland last year. Having come to terms with its limitations and aware of the anti-incumbency over many of its failed decisions like demonetization and GST implementation, the party has shrewdly moved the narrative to emotional issues like nationalism and Hindutva.
The opposition, instead of taking the Modi government head on and wresting the initiative, appears lost — unless the next few days before the elections turn into a IPL T20 situation where performance in the 19th and 20th overs many a time makes the difference between victory and defeat.