Can Rahul Gandhi help Congress rise from the ashes in 2019?

By Omkar Poojari

Almost four years after its worst-ever election defeat, the Congress party today is considered to be a sinking ship. The once powerful political party has been decimated to a paltry tally of 48 seats in the Lok Sabha, and is currently in power in only three states and one union territory. What is more, ‘Congress mukt Bharat‘ has become a buzzword in political discussion across the country.

Those who have written the obituary of the Congress party opine that the decline is an irreversible process, and that the end is close for the party. However, there are those who believe that this is another lean phase for the party and it may soon re-emerge, regaining its past glory.

With just about a year to go until the next general elections, Congress needs to buck up and get its act together if it hopes to recover. Here’s how Congress can set right its course, revamp and perhaps resurrect.

Catch them young: Wooing first-time voters in 2019

In the 2019 polls, 133 million young adults will get to cast their vote for the first time ever—70 million young men, and 63 million young women. This will surely be an extremely important electoral constituency that can swing the election. In 2014, one of the leading reasons behind Congress’s electoral rout was its inability to woo the 150 million aspirational, first time voters. A survey conducted by the CSDS revealed that in the 2014 polls, BJP secured the votes of around 36% of first time voters, while Congress succeeded in attracting less than half as much—a mere 17%.

Congress can’t afford to repeat its 2014 blunder, and has to woo first time voters by offering them solutions, and giving a voice to their ignored, trampled, crushed or rejected aspirations. A mere social media resurgence is not enough to do this. Rime Minister Narendra Modi has already set his eye on first time voters with his “Man ki Baat” speeches on exam stress, Teacher’s day interactions, and his book “Exam Warriors”—all part of a sustained campaign to create a brand, ”Chacha Modi”, to win over young voters. Congress needs to act with its own strategies before it’s too late or once again, it will be caught napping in 2019.

Rahul needs to learn from Indira – Shedding the ‘pappu’ image

I recall an incident in an environmental studies class when the teacher asked us to give an example of a ‘disaster’ and someone replied by saying, “Rahul Gandhi”, leaving the entire classroom in splits. This was after Gandhi’s so-called Twitter witticisms had created headlines, and the media was busy reporting about the public’s changing perception of the politician.

However, the reality is that many still see Rahul as a “pappu”—a diffident dilettante, and a reluctant politician. This perception must to change if the Congress president hopes to revive the party. A modern-day political party can’t afford such a sharply negative public perception of its leader, as it will only spoil its electoral fortunes.

Indira Gandhi  was derided as “Goongi Gudiya” (“dumb doll”). Rahul needs to reflect on how Indira went from being mocked to being hailed as a powerful leader.

Complete organisational revamp and reviving the Congress Seva Dal.

The theme of the 84th plenary session of the Congress party, which was held after a gap of seven years, was “Change is now”. Congress desperately needs a total organisational shakeup to stop its terminal decline. If Rahul has to usher in this change, and revamp the rank and file of the party, then he has to first set the Congress Working Committee (CWC), in order. The CWC, which consists of the party’s elite executive members, is full of old-time Indira and Rajiv Gandhi loyalists. Only three of the 35-40 members of the CWC are Lok Sabha MPs, and the average age of the committee’s members is 69.

Rahul needs to revamp the CWC and induct young, dynamic leaders who are popular at the grassroots level. Although this is easier said than done, the Congress party is in dire need of getting rid of its deep-rooted culture of sycophancy. At the state level, Congress has to put charismatic, regional satraps in charge, without fearing the emergence of a threat to the Gandhis’ hold over the party.

Such a strategy helped Congress win Punjab, and it seems to be following suit in Karnataka as well. To counter the RSS and the well-oiled BJP election machinery, Rahul needs to take up the cudgels for reviving the now-dormant Congress Seva Dal. Thus, Rahul’s priority as Congress’s chief should be to boost the Seva Dal, so that it can again churn out committed foot soldiers for the party to counter the BJP-RSS combine at the grassroots, and counter Amit Shah’s “Panna Pramukh” strategy.

Counter Hindutva with smart, sensible secularism

After Congress’s poll debacle in 2014, A.K. Antony, in a report to the Congress high command, had ascribed the wearing away of the party’s extensive support base to excessive leaning on what he called minority appeasement. For the last six elections, the Congress’s vote share among Muslims has been around 33%. However, for the first time, this proportion has risen to 44%. But, this marginal increase in the proportion of Muslim votes has driven the Hindu voter away from the Congress and created a perception of the party being anti-Hindu.

The Congress appears to have finally realised its tactical flaw, and has decided to do some course correction. The party needs to continue its new strategy of persisting with a smarter and more sensible version of secularism, which has seen Rahul on a temple-hopping spree. The strategy will help the Congress counter the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) Hindutva propaganda, and at the same time help it regain a chunk of its disgruntled Hindu voters. The Congress needs to continue with its smart secularism strategy, which is different from the soft Hindutva strategy since this doesn’t involve majoritarianism or minority appeasement.

Win back old allies and set up a rainbow coalition

At present, the first and foremost priority for the Congress is an organisational shakeup, and strengthening the grassroots network of the people. It is said that those who sweat during times of peace, don’t bleed during times of war. But, with just one year to go for the polls, the Congress party, in all practicality, may not be able to set its house in order and halt the Modi juggernaut on its own. Hence, it becomes almost inevitable for it to forge and spearhead a rainbow coalition of anti-BJP parties, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Nationalist Conference, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress party, and the Biju Janata Dal.

The Gorakhpur-Phulpur victory of the SP-BSP alliance was certainly a shot in the arm for the demoralised opposition, and a lesson for it too. A major factor that could aid Rahul in forging new alliances, is that there is a generational shift in the leadership of many regional political parties. Rahul currently enjoys a healthy working relationship with such second generation leaders, including Tejaswi Yadav of the RJD, M.K. Stalin and Kanimozhi of the DMK, and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference. Sonia Gandhi may also help in stitching together such a coalition of diverse political parties, with conflicting interests and ideologies. Congress’s biggest threat however, is the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP federal front. And Congress has to prevent any such federal front from to taking shape by using the argument that it is still the only pan-India alternative to BJP.

A David versus Goliath battle

Elections in India have off late, become a clash of personalities and a battle of perception. As Rajdeep Sardesai rightly points out in his book 2014: The Election That changed India, “2014 was Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi—the pracharak versus the prince, the ‘outsider’ versus the ‘insider’, the meritocrat versus the dynast, the small-town tea boy versus the child of elite privilege.”

Modi was able to project himself as the anti-establishment crusader taking on Rahul. But in 2019, Rahul and his Congress hold the edge, at least in this context. There is no point in Rahul playing Goliath when he can easily play David. Everybody in India loves the victim, the underdog. This is where Rahul can turn the tables. Instead of reacting to every sarcastic sally, he should take the moral high ground, and not respond, which he has done off late.

However, Congress’s leader will likely fail terribly if he tries to attack Modi in the way Modi attacks his rivals. The only way that Rahul can win the battle of perception is by following an agenda of connection to the aspirations of the people, instead of following the agenda of ridiculing his political rivals. Rahul cannot possibly match Modi in his rabble rousing oratorical skills, but he can surely project himself as an alternative to him by being a good listener, and an inclusive leader.

The BJP will likely come out all guns blazing in 2019, and use every weapon in its ammunition to repeat its 2014 success, while Congress, under Rahul, will try do what Indira did in 1980.

Will 2019 be another 2014 or another 1980? Only time will tell. But we need to remember that no two elections in India are ever the same.

Omkar Poojari is currently studying politics and economics at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai.


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