Exactly a year ago on this day, Rahul Gandhi was ‘elected’ president of the Congress party.
The 48-year-old leader was elected unopposed after an internal poll which, not so surprisingly, failed to throw up any challenger to the Gandhi scion.
What a time it's been! Rahul Gandhi completes one year as Congress president. (Source: PTI)
As Congress president, Gandhi succeeded his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who has been the longest serving party president in Congress history, and who saw several ups and downs during her 19-year-long tenure.
The Assembly election results declared on December 11 were thus not just a decision on which party wins which state, but also on the leadership capabilities of Rahul Gandhi.
The odds in this election were heavily stacked against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the party facing anti-incumbency in all three states ruled by its chief ministers.
While in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP was battling anti-incumbency stacked against it over a period of 15 years, in Rajasthan, the party had electoral history playing against it because no government has been voted to power for two successive terms in the state.
It is for this reason that Congress victories need to be taken with a pinch of salt by party members, supporters — and most importantly, by the party president himself.
The Congress has managed to register a decisive win in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress will most likely have to turn to ‘others’ for support to form a government.
In Telangana, the alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) failed to make a mark.
But the worst news for the party has come from Mizoram — a state the Congress has lost to the Mizo National Front (MNF), and thereby given up its hold on its last bastion in the Northeast.
With just one Lok Sabha seat, Mizoram may not be high on Congress’ priority — but being wiped out from a whole region amounts to losing the perception battle in the long run.
While BJP may not succeed in living its dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat, it sure has seen a Congress-mukt Northeast.
The drubbing in Mizoram has been so bad that chief minister Lal Thanhawla lost both constituencies — Serchhip and South Champhai — he contested from.
Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla lost both constituencies he contested from. (Source: India Today)
Why couldn’t the Congress capitalise on its gains?
Like always, Congress woke up late to the challenge. The party high command, which is now Rahul Gandhi himself, sent Kamal Nath to take charge of Madhya Pradesh as president of the state unit in April — roughly six months ahead of the crucial elections.
That is hardly enough time a party would need to take on the well-oiled election machinery of the BJP in a state where it has an exceptionally strong Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre.
While this late response could have worked fine in Rajasthan because there was anger against chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Shivraj Singh Chouhan continued to be a popular leader and there should have been a better strategy to take him on.
After a 12-year rule, with the taint of a Mandsaur-like incident on his career, Chouhan’s citadel should have been easily conquerable for the Congress. It wasn’t so.
And that is why Rahul Gandhi’s ability as a leader has to be put to question.
Rahul Gandhi’s speeches
Though the Congress chief relentlessly campaigned in all the election-headed states and kept his pitch very simple, he was mostly repetitive in his speeches. Even as he raised the issues of farm loan waivers and new job opportunities, he failed to provide any alternative strategy on how his party proposes to deliver on these fronts.
Gandhi also raised national issues, such as the alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal, which failed to enthuse local voters.
No alternative politics
Detractors of the BJP have accused the party of playing divisive politics by trying to play the Hindutva card. Interestingly, all that Gandhi has done in the past one year is fall straight into the BJP trap by keeping the issue of Hindutva central to the political discourse in the country.
A poster welcoming 'Shiv bhakt Rahul Gandhi' to Bhopal. (Photo: Twitter/ANI)
As a devotee of Lord Shiva, Rahul Gandhi visited Pitambara Peeth in Datia with senior party leaders. (Source: Twitter/@INCIndia)
With the full backing of the RSS and its affiliate organisations behind it, nobody can claim to play the Hindutva card better than the BJP. If anything, the ‘janeu dhari’ Gandhi has only helped in furthering BJP’s agenda by temple-hopping and keeping the political discourse limited to Hindus and Hindutva.
Beyond the current election
In the past year under Gandhi’s presidentship, the Congress lost Himachal Pradesh, improved its performance in Gujarat and formed the government in Karnataka, in an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS. But the running of the Karnataka alliance has been anything but smooth and Gandhi has personally so far made no attempt to send a signal that he is in control by letting former CM Siddaramaiah lock horns with chief minister HD Kumaraswamy.
Gandhi’s supporters claim the Congress president has shown great leadership skills by devolving power to regional leaders — Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, and Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh.
Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and outgoing Congress leader Siddaramaiah have clashed on more than one equation. (Source: PTI)
But this delegation doesn’t seem to have helped significantly. In Karnataka, the Congress had to concede the chief minister’s chair to stay in power, in MP, the handover came too late. The only place where the trick seemed to have worked for the party is in Rajasthan. However, as stated, Rajasthan was anyway poised towards the Congress in keeping with how the state votes traditionally.
Message for 2019
With national elections just a couple of months away, the Congress president needs to go back to the drawing board and start thinking afresh.
Slogans like, “Modi, tujhse bair nahi, Vasundhara, teri khair nahi" (Nothing against you, Modi, but we won’t forgive Vasundhara) and Modi’s continually high popularity suggest that people would be more likely to vote for the BJP in the national elections.
This is how Rahul Gandhi has fared in terms of providing an alternative to the Narendra Modi-led BJP government.