What Rahul Gandhi got right in his bid to challenge Narendra Modi for India’s premiership

  • Congress’ success in the state elections have punctured the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 8:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 9:26pm

One year ago, Rahul Gandhi took over the reins of the Congress party when it was diminished, riven by corruption and had just 44 members in the 545-seat lower house of India’s parliament.

But after Tuesday’s elections, the opposition party now looks set to form governments in three Hindi-speaking states that have turned away from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), placing the 48-year-old Gandhi in prime position for a shot at the premiership.

Congress’ campaign in the state polls, which are widely billed as a bellwether for next year’s general election, capitalised on dissatisfaction with incumbents, rural distress and rising unemployment – all issues that have resonated with the electorate.

Added to this was a wave of anti-Modi sentiment that Gandhi has skilfully ridden, according to Congress’ national spokeswoman Priyanka Chaturvedi.

“Here’s a person who faced the biggest negative campaign as a leader even before he took over as president. The entire BJP machinery tried to undermine him, ridicule him, launched attacks on his leadership style and questioned his capabilities,” she said.

Despite all this, Gandhi managed to deliver a blow to Modi’s “divisive agenda” thanks to a refocusing on core democratic values, Chaturvedi said.

He [Modi] refused to listen to the heartbeat of this country
Rahul Gandhi

“I think Rahul has bounced back as a personality and successfully written off his critics by showing much more spunk,” said Madhavan Narayanan, political commentator and columnist. “The more interesting thing than his oratory or tour is that he managed to galvanise [the] rank and file of the party. Also, he has successfully hit the mistakes and weak points of the Modi government, particularly on rural issues.”

Gandhi himself attributes his party’s success to the trouncing it received in the 2014 elections, when the BJP secured an overwhelming majority. Modi’s party subsequently captured 21 states – representing 70 per cent of India’s population – either directly or as part of a coalition.

“He [Modi] was given a massive opportunity to lead the country. He refused to listen to the heartbeat of this country. That is something I have learnt from how he has acted,” Gandhi said.

Congress’ most recent electoral successes have punctured the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Modi and the BJP. As has the drubbing both main parties received in the other two state elections this week – Mizoram and Telangana, where regional groups captured the ballot.

[Congress] now goes into the national elections with considerable advantage
Manoj Joshi

Whether Gandhi can build on his victories to catapult himself to the premiership, which essentially requires a consensus of anti-Modi parties from across India, remains to be seen.

But for Manoj Joshi, of the New Delhi-based think tank the Observer Research Foundation, Congress now has the edge.

“[Congress] now goes into the national elections with considerable advantage. Firstly, it boosts the morale of party cadre and [this] is an important factor. Secondly, more money will pour into the campaign once the party is in an ascent,” he said.

If Gandhi is able to capitalise on his success and cobble together an anti-Modi alliance before India goes back to the polls next April or May, then a path to power may yet be within his grasp.

How the humble onion could determine the outcome of India’s elections