Rahul, Congress and the Bihar Elections

Will the “Rebranded Rahul Gandhi” change the fortunes of the Congress?

It’s been 3 months since Rahul Gandhi returned to India after his 56-day sabbatical – 3 months in which the political dynamics of the country have undergone a sea change. The Congress appears to be reinvigorated (at least, on the face of it), boosted by Rahul’s new-found (although sometimes misplaced) aggression and the cloud of corruption allegations hanging over the saffron brigade.
What is evident from this transformation is that Rahul, earlier infamous for being the reluctant politico who lacked the focus to carry out a sustained political campaign, now seems to be more eager to pick up a fight with his rivals. What is not evident is the impact the change may have on the electoral fortunes of the INC.

Personally, I don’t think it will be of much consequence. It gives a boost to the Congress’s flagging strength but it isn’t a panacea to all the evils the Congress faces. The Indian administrative set-up isn’t Presidential in nature due to which  Indian voters make their choices after taking into account a large variety of factors besides the leadership of the party – caste, religion, the candidate, the Government’s performance at the state and the national level – to name a few. Rahul’s new-found bravado may have shaken the party out of the stupor it sunk into after the rout that the 2014 Elections were for them, but to bring about a revival, Rahul needs an effective party apparatus.

Politicians cannot single-handedly change the tide of an election for their party – even Narendra Modi could not salvage his party’s prospects in Delhi 2015 or Karnataka 2013. Even Indira, arguably, the most dominating and charismatic Indian politician, could not win her own seat in 1977 – a year when the popular mood was dead against her party. A leader can only capitalize on a favorable situation and channelize public support to engineer a wave in favour of his party – like Indira had done in 1980 and Modi did in 2014. My point here is that no leader can revive the Congress from the absurd depths it has plummeted to.

The only way out for the party is to restructure the organization radically – which is what Mr. Gandhi has been aiming for since a long time but has been unable to proceed with.  Any party needs a large cadre base to communicate with the masses at the grassroots. The misfortune of the Congress, however, has been that over the years the party has acquired this peculiar inverted pyramid structure – with plenty of leaders with little or no following. Organizational elections have long been due in the GOP but have never taken off – pulling such a feat off will also add to Rahul’s credentials as a tough politico.

Where does the Congress stand as of today?

Nowhere close to regaining its former position! Where the Congress has a chance, like in Punjab and Telangana, the party is plagued by infighting.  The Telangana unit is a classic case – not only did it fail to appropriate credit for the creation of the state but it also continues to do a poor job of keeping the Government on its toes. If it has been in news these days, it is only for the unrelenting stream of defections the party has seen.  Punjab, the only state where the Congress has some hope of capturing power in the short-term, is increasingly turning out to be the INC’s waterloo. The Assam unit seems to be staring at a split while the workers from Haryana are polarized into two opposing camps.

The only state where the Congress seems to have got things absolutely right is Bihar. To his credit, Mr. Gandhi has played his cards exceedingly well – he should be credited for having forced Lalu Prasad Yadav to reconcile with the decision of anointing Nitish Kumar as the Chief Ministerial candidate. The battle for Bihar is crucial to the future of Indian politics in more ways than one.

Why is the Bihar Election all that significant?

Firstly, with the BJP now returning to the tried and tested formula of fighting elections under the aegis of the Prime Minister himself, the election is now a prestige issue for him. A victory will cement his credentials and facilitate victory in Uttar Pradesh 2017 (which will allow him an exceedingly good chance to retain his post in 2019). A loss will have a debilitating effect – it will raise question marks on the PM’s ability to deliver electoral victories to the party and be a moral dampener before the battles in Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Besides, the Bihar polls are an acid test for the BJP President, coming after the crushing defeat it was handed in Delhi 6 months ago.

Secondly, if the united opposition triumphs in Bihar, it may provide a template for other opposition groups to follow in the rest of the country. The Congress has already begun extending feelers to other Opposition parties – a win in Bihar may coerce it to enter into similar alliances across the country. The soaring index of Opposition unity is Parliament has already proven to be troublesome for the BJP in Parliament.

Thirdly, a saffron sweep will also allow the BJP Government greater legroom for driving through reforms to liberalize the economy. The BJP can also cite the mandate to justify retaining its leaders who have gotten involved in corruption allegations recently. Of course, Opposition unity will be blown to smithereens as well and both Lalu and Nitish may have to face political oblivion.

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