With general elections lurking around the corner and vital economic parameters slipping, leading to disillusionment among a large section of people and social media users, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi remains the best bet as far as BJP in 2019 is concerned. The reasons for this optimism is obvious in the BJP. The feeling that is worrying some in the Congress and leading to disillusionment galore in the party is that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo are running a well-oiled election machine while the Congress scion, who is tipped to become the party president after Diwali, makes sporadic appearances and utterances that are, more often than not, laced with gaffes which make party leaders run for cover.
The Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has become the party’s Achilles’ heel. Any electoral contest becomes Mr Gandhi vs the Prime Minister, in which Mr Modi has a better chance of beating him. In the last one year, many dedicated voters of the BJP have been disenchanted by the way the Modi government has moved forward. There has been severe criticism of the government on several fronts. Strangely, when an election comes the majority of this disenchanted people still vote for Mr Modi. Their basic grievance is that they see the Congress vice-president unfit to lead. They are looking for options but are unable to find any. There has also been talk of Mr Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra joining active politics. Often posters appear exhorting her to come to the aid of the party. But the “will-she-wont-she” conundrum is diluting her appeal among the voters. In the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, there was a buzz that Priyanka will be actively campaigning. But her no-show in the rallies raised several eyebrows.
Presently, she has restricted herself to looking after the parliamentary constituencies of her brother and mother. Interestingly, she was actively involved in the backroom negotiations for striking an alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. But during campaigning, it was Mr Gandhi who was the face of the party. Mr Gandhi was appointed vice-president of the Congress in January 2013. Four years later, he is viewed more as a baggage than a force multiplier.
Now his impending ascent to the top post in the party is being seen with caution rather than joy, despite Mr Rahul trying his best during his just-concluded US trip in which he sparked a controversy by defending dynasty politics. Apart from the Karnataka Assembly elections in May 2013, the Congress has lost all elections that have been contested under his leadership. There was the exception of Punjab this year but it was more of a referendum on the leadership of veteran Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh. While in the last Bihar Assembly election, the Congress was piggy-backing on the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal-United.
In the last four-and-a-half-years, there has been a serious void of leadership in the Congress. Despite Congress president Sonia Gandhi being indisposed and wanting to make Mr Gandhi learn the ropes, Mr Gandhi could certainly not inspire much confidence neither inside the party nor outside. The general impression within the party was that he is reluctant to take over the mantle - a charge which he has strongly denied in several interactions. He has also blamed the saffronites for spreading this canard against him. But insiders feel that his actions do not speak for his words. The foreign visits of Mr Gandhi at crucial junctures have been a cause of embarrassment for the party. Many in the party feel that Mr Gandhi is missing in action at crucial junctures and does not take command of the situation. In June this year, when the farmer agitation in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, was brewing in which several farmers were shot dead in police firing, he just made a one-day tour and moved out. After that he went abroad to be with his grandmother and also celebrate his birthday. There is a serious agrarian crisis in the country, the farmer is reeling under debt and high-handedness of the government but, strangely, there is no countrywide agitation started by the party’s vice-president.
Also in the month of June crucial elections to the posts of President and vice- president of India were announced. The Congress was keen to put up a joint Opposition candidate. The task of negotiations to short-list a candidate and building consensus with other Opposition parties was left to the Congress president. The Gandhi scion was again missing. Major economic decisions of the government, which have hit the economy hard, have not been politically capitalised by the Congress under Mr Gandhi. Presently, in the implementation of GST small and medium traders are the worst-affected.
Compliance costs have shot up and there have been protests across the country. But, once again, the Congress is unable to make it a national issue and go to traders and protest against the inspector raj. Interestingly, there has been no cohesive policy spelt out by the Congress to get a sizeable section of voters to its side. Inside the party also, the leadership which Mr Gandhi has displayed till now is lacklustre. His inability to take a call in Goa after the Assembly elections cost the Congress a state government. Independent MLAs wanted to meet him but since there was a communication gap, the BJP moved in swiftly and formed the government inspite of the Congress being the single largest party.
Similarly, trouble brews in states like Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh. The problem is the same - the high command is not able resolve infighting prevailing in these units. The BJP is on an offensive even in Mr Gandhi’s family bastion Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. Senior leaders of the BJP are constantly nurturing and visiting this constituency. Posters by unknown people had also come up in Amethi, saying that the local MP is missing. Incidentally, before his three-day visit from October 4-7, Mr Gandhi visited his constituency on February 19. The time is ripe, people within the saffron camp have openly started targeting the BJP national leadership. Job losses have started affecting the common man, the farmer is already under stress. But a leaderless Congress gives very little hope to voters. Not making Mr Gandhi the face of the party may help the dwindling fortunes of the Congress.