The Rahul versus Mamata versus Arvind battle
The Congress can’t be discounted, but its weaknesses have emboldened other parties to expand their national footprint
Indian politics is on the boil once again. While the teflon-like Narendra Modi government appears to tide blissfully over every looming crisis, it is the Opposition space that is undergoing an intense churn.
At the heart of this churn is the Congress and the enigmatic figure of Rahul Gandhi. After 17 years in public life, no one is still quite sure who the real Rahul Gandhi is. Is he the “power is poison” principled idealist who is seeking to revamp the Congress by disrupting the party’s traditional elite structures, as evidenced most recently in Punjab? Or is he an entitled fifth-generation dynast who doesn’t have the grassroots connect, political stamina or personal charisma to lift a struggling party out of its deepening crisis?
Pinning the blame on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership failings for the Congress’s decline is a soft option — it isn’t as if his possible return as Congress president or replacing him with another leader is going to miraculously alter the Grand Old Party’s fortunes. The Congress’s problems go well beyond the steady erosion in the vote-catching abilities of the Gandhi family. They lie in a fundamental shift in the arc of Indian politics wherein the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its aggressive brand of muscular religious nationalism and the Modi-style of populist leadership, has squeezed the space for an enfeebled organisation such as the Congress with its accumulated baggage from decades in power to offer a credible alternative. As Sharad Pawar, rather sharply, remarked recently in an interview to this columnist, “The Congress is like an old zamindari still reminiscing about its lost lands.”
And yet, despite its obvious weakening, the Congress is still the most recognisable pan-Indian Opposition brand. There are still at least 10 states where the Congress vote share is more than 30%, making it either a party of power or a principal Opposition. Making inroads into this vulnerable vote share is, therefore, a lure not just for the ruling BJP, but also simultaneously for the rest of the Opposition, including those parties which claim to have been once part of the wider Congress parivar. Like eager lion cubs on the prowl, these parties are fiercely competing with each other to take over from a fading king of the political jungle.
Which is why a key question in the build-up to the 2024 general elections is not so much who is in pole position to be the prime minister, but who will be the face of the Opposition or, to tweak a popular Hindi news tagline, “Kaun Banega Challenger”. Which is also why the Congress’s crisis has sparked off a frenetic race for pre-eminence in the Opposition ranks.
How else does one explain, for example, the urgency being shown by a Mamata Banerjee in riding on the momentum of her spectacular Bengal success by expanding her party’s presence not just into the neighbouring Northeast states but also distant Goa? Or indeed rushing her MPs to meet grieving families in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri? Only weeks ago, Banerjee was in conversation with Sonia Gandhi at an Opposition leaders’ conclave. Now, by weaning away Congress leaders considered close to the Gandhi family and threatening to establish a beach-head in Goa, a state where the Congress was the single-largest party in 2017, the West Bengal chief minister (CM) has made her intentions clear of being seen as a national challenger to the BJP.
Another prime contender is the Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. If Banerjee has the advantage of being the solitary defiant woman figure in a male-dominated arena, Kejriwal’s USP is that he is an articulate. bilingual, middle class, anti-establishment figure whose party is a political start-up not weighed down by specific regional, caste or community loyalties as yet. Like Banerjee, Kejriwal too is moving quickly into states where the Congress is seen as vulnerable. Should he, for example, win Punjab next year, then he too can look to spread his net far and wide.
Both Kejriwal and Banerjee have one big advantage over Rahul Gandhi — not bearing a famous surname, they can contest the Modi “chaiwallah to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg” storyline with the equally emotive account of their own ascent. Oppositional politics, though, doesn’t just need charismatic leaders; it also needs a compelling narrative of change. With a Modi-led BJP combining pro-poor welfarist beneficiary schemes with Hindu nationalist fervour, the Opposition has limited options. However, rising farmer discontent and a galloping jobs crisis may open a small window of opportunity.
Rahul Gandhi seems to have pitched his Congress tent with youthful hard-Left warriors; the recent entry of Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani is evidence that the party will now take its anti-corporate, anti- Hindutva, anti-Modi rhetoric a notch higher. While sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attempts to provide an empathetic human touch, Rahul is waging an ideological war. By contrast, both Banerjee and Kejriwal, as more astute practitioners of realpolitik, have consciously reached out to Hindu voters without abandoning their “secular” and “social justice” pro-poor plank.
Will these Opposition leaders eventually unite or will they simply try to knock each other out first? Any answer to that question throws up an intriguing range of possibilities, one reason why the battle for supremacy within the Opposition will continue to fascinate in the months ahead.
Post script: At a recent press conference, Rahul Gandhi argued, somewhat justifiably, that the media ecosystem is more concerned with the state of the Opposition than asking questions of those in power. Here is one such disquieting question that demands a wider debate. Can the Centre be allowed to get away with a rather brazenly disingenuous recent claim that the PM Cares Fund is not a Government of India Fund, and, hence, cannot be subject to a Right To Information enquiry?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal