Also Read; Has come of age
The charitable explanation could be that repeated defeats have sobered him to the point that he values what different leaders within Congress bring to the table. That explanation, however, would be superficial. The truth is that the Gandhi-Nehru family is, indeed, the only relevant cementing factor within Congress. It’s just that Gandhi never defined his role as such in the initial years.
Many would say that he took this ‘legacy role’ for granted. Rahul Gandhi of the UPA-2 era was building his public profile as the principal vote-catcher for Congress, whose campaigning, like his father’s and his grandmother’s, would determine the party’s electoral fortunes.
The first shock to this endeavour came in the 2012 rout in Uttar Pradesh, followed by the humiliating 2014 Lok Sabha defeat. It was clear Rahul Gandhi was no star campaigner who could single-handedly swing elections. Instead, the way in which Narendra Modi descended on the national scene, a counter-campaign found Gandhi having the opposite effect on the electoral fortunes of Congress candidates. Such extreme descriptions are usually proven wrong.
The assembly victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are a case in point. At the same time, what’s clear is that Congress’s win has more to do with Gandhi’s ability to bring all warring Congress factions within these states on a common platform than with his popularity as a campaigner.
It’s the role of the party president as a binding force, the chief arbitrator, the one who has the last word, that has come to fore for Gandhi in these elections, and in the subsequent process to select the CMs. In effect, he has been successful in building a rainbow coalition of locally strong Congress leaders in these states.
Let’s take the example of Chhattisgarh. In every election, the Congress vote would be split. For years, Ajit Jogi and the late VC Shukla worked at cross purposes, allowing the advantage to move to BJP, despite close vote shares. This was crippled by the decimation of the entire Congress leadership in a gruesome Maoist attack in 2013.
The party has made a remarkable comeback through a whole new leadership. Gandhi showcased all four leaders in a picture, trying to make the point that regardless of who bagged the chief minister’s post, he was underwriting a model of collective leadership.
Rajasthan is, however, the only state where he did not make the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president the chief minister. Which is why Sachin Pilot may well argue that he got the rough end of the deal. After all, it was Gandhi’s call to set aside the claims of several seniors, including those of Gehlot and CP Joshi, to make Pilot the PCC president five months before the 2014 general elections. Congress was routed.
Pilot lost his own seat, and there seemed no hope for a revival. But by September 2014, Pilot had won three of the four bypolls on assembly seats vacated by then BJP MLAs to successfully contest in the Lok Sabha polls. He fought hard to create his own space in Rajasthan while stoking the growing anti-incumbency against the Vasundhara Raje administration.
Still, for all these efforts, Congress barely made it past the post, this time getting 99 seats. But then, in 2008, Gehlot became CM with just 96 seats. So, the onus was on Gandhi to curb the anger against BJP that was spilling on to the streets.
He did so, not with diktat but through persuasion and accommodation. This was missing when, say, Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam left Congress to join BJP in 2015. Sarma singlehandedly reversed BJP’s fortunes in the North-East, ensuring Congress was out of power from every state in that region.
Youngsters at Risk
The truth is that it’s the younger leadership that is often poached, not the old guard. But there are older generational leaders like Kamal Nath and Gehlot who still have years left in them, and are unlikely to shift bases now. Which is why it makes better sense to replace the ‘young vs old’ framework with an age-neutral performance matrix.
Because that’s the only way Congress can take this momentum forward and mount a serious enough challenge to Modi’s BJP in 2019. What’s most likely is that the Congress challenge in 2019 will come from a bouquet of state-level leaders held together by Gandhi than by just Gandhi himself.
In many ways, it will be the face of Modi on BJP’s campaign poster against Rahul Gandhi’s group photograph. While it’s anyone’s guess which ‘picture’ will rule from Delhi, what’s clear is that the more leaders Rahul Gandhi is able to include in his group photograph—leaders from non-Congress parties included— the better the chances for his party.