Can Congress president-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi beard the lion in his own den?
Unlikely. But the Congress, out of power in Gujarat since 1995, has set a low bar for measuring Rahul’s success. If the BJP can be kept to below 115 seats (its 2012 tally) in the 182-seat Assembly, then it will count as a vindication of Rahul’s leadership.
After the Congress’ dismal performance in the Uttar Pradesh civic polls and a wipe-out in Rahul’s Amethi constituency, even the most optimistic ground-level Congress worker in Gujarat expects the party to lose the election. The only question is by how much the BJP will win. There are three scenarios.
First, the BJP runs away with it, winning over 130 seats, using its fearsome booth-level power. That would be an early setback for Rahul’s party presidency.
Second, the BJP gets 115-120 seats, matching the 2012 result. Rahul’s sassy social media head will spin this as Rahul’s win, ignoring that it still gives the BJP nearly two-thirds of the Assembly’s seats.
Third, the BJP struggles to get past 100 and ends up with a “slim” majority of around 105/182. Rahul’s team will talk that up as a big win for their new leader, taunting the BJP that the trend proves that this is its last term in office in Gujarat.
Rahul has taken a gamble to time his dynastic ascension so close to the results of the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections. He knows that the Congress faces a rout in Himachal. And Gujarat, for all the damage Hardik Patel may do, is a lost cause as well.
On December 18, counting day, Rahul will be blamed for both the defeats. Would it not have been wiser to wait for the Karnataka poll (where the Congress should do well) in April 2018 to move up a rung in what, since Indira Gandhi’s internal Congress coup in 1969, has been the Nehru family’s ancestral property?
To answer that question, dig deeper into Rahul’s personality.
Psychologically singed by grandmother Indira’s and father Rajiv’s assassinations, Rahul is unpredictable. In 2013, he displayed that by publicly tearing prime minister Manmohan Singh’s ordinance which would have allowed Lalu Prasad Yadav to contest elections.
The incident showed Rahul was capable of distinguishing right from wrong but suffered from a dynast’s sense of entitlement that allowed him to publicly humiliate his prime minister, and the hapless Ajay Maken, who was present at the press conference where Rahul angrily tore up the ordinance.
So Rahul did the right thing in the wrong way. Not a disqualification for politicians, most of whom do the wrong thing in the wrong way (i.e. surreptitiously).
Rahul’s streak of arrogance hides his insecurity. His reluctance to take charge of the Congress since mother Sonia Gandhi signalled years ago that she was ready to step aside sprang at least partly from that feeling of inadequacy.
His differences with the old guard, now largely settled, hark back to the same sense of insecurity that is often disguised in a show of arrogance. That led to the long “reluctant Rahul” phase. It also caused him to sleepwalk through parliamentary debates and disappear to unknown destinations for weeks together, once famously in 2015 for two months.
Next, look at Rahul’s background. Father Rajiv was a reluctant politician, too. He had to be persuaded for months by his mother Indira Gandhi to join politics after younger brother Sanjay Gandhi’s death in a private plane crash in June 1980.
Rajiv was happy working as a full-time pilot for domestic carrier Indian Airlines from 1968 to 1980, deliberately distancing himself from Indian politics.
He finally, reluctantly, agreed to contest from Amethi, the family pocket borough now held by Rahul, in 1981. Wife Sonia was strongly opposed to him joining politics.
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Sonia pleaded with Rajiv not to accept the prime ministership. She feared the worst.
Thus reluctance to be an active politician was ingrained in Rahul. He avoided it till he was 34, the age in which Sanjay Gandhi died after a near-decade in politics. Thirteen years after, he became an MP from Amethi. Rahul at 47 has shed his reluctance but not his sense of entitlement.
It is a dynastic disease. The first germ was transmitted in 1959 when Jawaharlal Nehru appointed daughter Indira as Congress president. She was 41. The infection has since spread to other parties, but the Congress was the pioneer of a feudal system of political inheritance that has damaged the quality of Indian democracy.
By taking head-on the responsibility of near-certain defeats in Himachal and Gujarat, Rahul has shown bravado rather than bravery. Rajiv was brave. He led the computer revolution and tried to modernise the administration. But he had poor advisors, including the late Arun Nehru and a coterie of Italian businessmen, led by Ottavio Quattrocchi.
Eye on 2019
Rahul is positioning himself for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress believes it can cut BJP’s parliamentary seat tally in five key states: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. That could slice 60-odd seats from the 282, the BJP won in 2014.
With around 220 seats, Modi would find it difficult to form an NDA government if the Shiv Sena walks out. The only major allies left would be the JD(U) and the TDP. The numbers for the NDA would then fall below 272.
If an Opposition national alliance can put together a government with a working majority, the Congress could support it from outside (as it did in 1996-98). That though is a wishful thinking. The Congress itself is unlikely to improve significantly on its 2014 tally of 44 seats (45 following a by-election). Its alliance partners are all regional. Only the TMC will cross 30 seats in the Lok Sabha. A collection of Opposition Lilliputs could scare off the electorate.
The Modi magic may meanwhile return as the economy recovers. If the Congress trips up with more chaiwala jibes, the NDA could again win over 300 seats.
It’s early days yet. Gujarat and Himachal will prove little. Nor will Karnataka. To see which way the political wind is blowing, we’ll have to wait for December 2018 when Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls.
They could decide Rahul’s fate in 2019.