Those who have keenly followed the political trajectory of Narendra Damodardas Modi say that he launched his campaign for Lok Sabha 2014 in February 2013, when he addressed students at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi. From that college podium, Mr Modi directly addressed the Indian middle class, tapping cleverly into their sense of despondency, or nirasha, as he put it, which was all too pervasive after the UPA’s unending scams, policy paralysis in Delhi, and the Anna Hazare anti-corruption satsang leading to very little change.
Through his almost hour-long speech, Mr Modi positioned himself as a man of action and hope. Holding a glass half-filled with water, he said, “I think differently. I see this glass not as half-empty or half-filled, but as half filled with water and half with air.” He seemed to have a vision and answers to many ills. He also had the Gujarat model of development to sell. What he had done for Gujarat, he would do for the rest of India, Mr Modi assured.
Some consider this speech — timed little over a year after his very-public Sadbhavana fasts, undertaken to heal Gujarat and, “close the 2002 riots chapter” — to be the moment when he cast himself in the role of India’s 14th Prime Minister. As the aggressive, energetic, vocal alternative to the quiet, impassive, stoical Manmohan Singh, Mr Modi was very appealing to many.
Well, first thing is that I want to see him takeover. We have been hearing this for a long time now. Frankly, I am surprised why has he taken so long to take over. Now, if this happens, it will be clear that he would be taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 general elections. So he has to be ready to take on that challenge. There will be comparisons between his style of functioning and that of Mr Modi’s. So we will have to see... Till the time the Congress pulls off some miracles in the upcoming Assembly elections, and there are quite a few between now and the general elections, there will be little to choose for the ordinary citizen...
— Manisha Priyam, Political Analyst
Four years later, on October 4, 2017, Mr Modi as a three-year-old Prime Minister decided to use his address at the golden jubilee year of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India to defend his government’s economic track record. Flayed and criticised, not just by political rivals, but also his own partymen, for failing to deliver on the economy, Mr Modi stepped up to defend his government’s policies.
He rubbished the charge and blamed “a handful” of “pessimists” who can’t sleep well without “finding fault”. But rhetoric was no longer enough. He came armed with statistics and needed bar charts and graphs to show how he had transformed India and made the promised “achche din” a reality. All is well, he assured. Some political watchers saw a shift. They saw in this moment — when India’s greatest political orator had to rely on power-point style slides to deliver a message — mild desperation, even fear, perhaps.
They saw another significant thing. Lok Sabha 2019 was no longer a done deal. It has opened up, they say. The Congress saw it too, and has been sensing it and reacting to it since August.
Cold figures tells an economic story that’s at variance with the one Mr Modi tells.
India’s GDP growth has been slowing down every quarter, since the second quarter of 2016-17. It dropped to a three-year low of 5.7% during first quarter (April-June) of 2017-18
RBI has cut its growth forecast for current fiscal to just 6.7% from the earlier projection of 7.3%
India’s industrial production witnessed an anaemic growth of 1.2% in July as manufacturing sector was hit by GST jitters
The manufacturing sector, a major source of jobs, grew by mere 0.1% in July 2017
Exports have hovered around $300 billion in the last two years w short of the foreign trade policy targets announced in April 2015, which projected annual exports of $900 billion by 2020
The Opposition, particularly the Congress, which has been struggling to stay relevant in national and electoral politics, has been going for the kill.
With the story of “economy is in a tailspin”, the Congress, along with the Left and Trinamul Congress, is trying to go for the Modi-sarkar’s jugular. In the forthcoming Assembly polls in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, the grim economic scenario will be the Congress’ main election plank.
Simultaneously, the Congress is undergoing a makeover to take on the Modi-Shah led BJP. Young leaders are being pushed up to take over in states like Madhya Pradesh (Jyotiraditya Scinda), Rajasthan (Sachin Pilot), and Rahul Gandhi himself will be replacing his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president soon. Mr Gandhi’s recent speech at Berkeley is described by some saffron sympathisers as an act by a “stand up comedian”. But, for the Congress, “Rahul hit the right chord when he admitted to his party’s failures and India’s tryst with dynastic politics.”
Strategically, at least on paper, the Congress is on the right track. But “Yuvraj” Rahul Gandhi is up against the Goliath of Indian politics. And for some, “Rahul falls too short to reach for Modi’s jugular.” Others say that doesn’t matter. “In 2004, there was no alternative, really. The Congress had no PM candidate… there was no clarity… and yet Atal Behari Vajpayee was voted out and the Congress was voted to power. All that the Congress needs to do now is harp on the promises that haven’t been kept. I would take a 100 promises Narendra Modi had made and everyday raise one and talk of the actual delivery,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times, says.
“In 2014,” he adds, “Narendra Modi was the alternative. In 2017, already there is talk of TINA factor — talk of Modi being elected in 2019 because there is no alternative is a very significant shift.” A BJP MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, says all this carping-elation is coming from elites, “upper middle class, and maybe some sections of the middle class”. “The poor, who remain unaffected, whose condition hasn’t changed, mostly say two things — one, ‘Jo bhi ho jaye, Rahul Gandhi ko vote nahin denge,’ and ‘Modi kuch karna chahta hai. Kuch toh karega’.” “There’s umeed that he will do something, and there’s also a feeling amongst people who identify themselves as Hindus that while the Congress is an anti-Hindu party, Modi Sarkar is hamari sarkar,” he says. He attributes the sudden spurt in pro-Rahul, anti-Modi buzz on Facebook and Twitter to new talent and infusion of massive funds into the Congress’ social media team in the past three months. It’s important, but it doesn’t get votes.
With Rahul Gandhi taking over as the president of the Congress, not much change is expected. Yes, I agree that there are going to be changes in the organisation and we can actually divide the them into two parts — organisational and electoral. The younger generation will be given more opportunities since Mr Gandhi would be in complete control. But as far as electoral prospects of the Congress are concerned, I feel they will remain unchanged. Mr Gandhi has been the de facto president of the party for quite some time now. He is party to all the decisions that are being taken. The cadres of the party also know that Mr Gandhi has been in command for long. As far as the Congress is concerned, ideologically I would say that the party has moved slightly right of centre. I would not say that it is strongly right of centre.
— Sanjay Kumar, Director CSDS
“The only way,” he says, “Rahul will be a viable choice, not just for people, but his own party and the Opposition parties keen on a secular alliance against Modi, is a win. Gujarat will decide who wins 2019.” Rahul Gandhi was in poll-bound Gujarat last month, running from one temple to another. Now Mr Modi is in Gujarat, holding election rallies, inaugurating projects and visiting temples. Mr Modi and Amit Shah know how to play the election game. And they have, in their arsenal, jingoism, Hindutva and the promise of achche din 2.0, and many, very impressive wins.
Rahul Gandhi has no real victory under his belt. And he’s just beginning to develop a narrative to counter Modi-Shah. In the biblical war, “little man” David defeated the giant Goliath. In the reality that is “Bharat”, whatever the message, it’s the medium that matters. And right now, while the Congress’ messages may be striking a chord, the man delivering them doesn’t elicit much confidence. It doesn’t feel like Rahul Gandhi is up for the fight. Not against Goliath, at least.