It would be presumptuous to say that the elections to the five-state assemblies are a semi-final clatter for Prime Minister Narendra Modi; but one thing is certain that the peoples’ verdict for these elections will outline the political future of Rahul Gandhi.
A negative mandate will certainly erode the credibility and image of Modi to a large extent, but he would still have nearly five months in his hands to carry out denting and painting of his political image with the help of the RSS, which ironically will be left with no alternative but to marshal its entire resources to project him as the saviour. Notwithstanding its nursing of serious reservation, the RSS cannot choose to dump Modi at this crucial stage. For the RSS, winning the Lok Sabha election is synonymous with Modi ruling for the third consecutive term.
Although the defeat in the five state polls will have some effect on the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the RSS and Modi will undertake major political and administrative steps to reassure people. Proverbially, public memory is short. We have seen how in Rajasthan, the Chiranjivi policy of Ashok Gehlot succeeded in moulding the psyche of the people. Astonishingly, the people had conveniently forgotten the misrule of Modi government, lack of employment opportunity, yearlong farmers’ movement and soaring of market prices.
Political experts and analysts feed the perception that Bharat Jodo Yatra has rejuvenated the Congress and refurbished the image of Rahul Gandhi. He has travelled a long distance from the his ‘Pappu’ avatar popularized by Modi and his ilk, to the fiery rebel leader and new ideologue of the Congress party, striving hard to give a left-of-centre orientation and identifying the party with the aspirations of the poor, dalit and tribal.
In a conspicuous manner, Rahul Gandhi has been keeping some distance from the middle class, massive chunks of which have embraced Hindutva of RSS and Modi and likes to be known as Modi’s bhakts. However, of late, even the middle classes feel stung by the lackadaisical economy and let down by Modi, whose policies have not yielded much benefit for them. They have been bitterly sensitive the bites of unemployment. The latest demographic changes suggest that a sizeable chunk of middle class families are now left with only elderly people, with the younger generation migrating abroad for a better future. This class is nevertheless angry with Modi and his style of functioning, but they still nurse the view that Modi might make better things possible, as per the slogan ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai”.
Although the middle classes of South India has divorced RSS and BJP, but the umbilical cord of the North Indian middle class has with BJP is still strong. In Karnataka assembly election, the North Indians residing in Bengaluru and working with the IT sector or corporate houses had voted for BJP. How far have Rahul and Priyanka’s election campaigns changed their psyche is not yet clear. In the three major Hindi-speaking states, which party the young middle class demographic voted for is not obvious in a pronounced manner. Of course, the only solace for the Congress has been the open support of women in these states to the Congress.
This election may or may not be the semi-finals for Modi, but certainly it has the nature of a mini general election. Elections were held from the west to the north-east, from the centre to the south. Obviously, the results from Rajasthan, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana have the potential to make or break the party in 2024.
A win for Congress in these elections will pave the path for Rahul Gandhi’s ultimate political ascendance and recognition as the potent national leader. A win will also make other opposition parties to accept him as the natural claimant for the office of the prime minister. These gains are of huge relevance and importance, and Rahul will move faster in his mission to bring about transformative changes in the function and organisational character of the Congress.
Gandhi will have to clear the party of the rightist policy dominance, especially the neoliberal economic camp, as well as soft religious conservatism. During the electioneering in Madhya Pradesh, most of the Congress leaders preferred to get the blessings of the saints and in some cases, moved amongst the voters wearing Hindu attires. For them, any ideological commitment or concern for the economic welfare of the poor has been mere lip service.
On the contrary, Rahul tried to connect with the tribal, poor and dalit and win them over. At his public rallies, he spoke of poor, dalit and labourers. Through his speech he tried to identify himself with the poorest sections of the society. He knows that India, with 70 per cent of the people denied of the purchasing power, cannot rely merely on the support and strength of the middle classes and the handful of the rich aristocratic elite. The leaders of the party will also have to change their stance and attitude towards this section of the people.
It is sure that with these leaders in command at the state levels, the Congress cannot aspire to emerge as a potent force to rule the country for a long period. It may win the 2024 election, but for continuing to be in power, it has to evolve a new brand of leadership committed to the benefit of the common people.
Rahul Gandhi has made his intentions public as the new rebel in the Congress at the 2012 AICC meet, where he tore the ordinance allowing tainted leaders to continue in office. His action was severely criticised by most of the Congress leaders. It was alleged that he had insulted the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh had not issued the ordinance on his own. At that time, Sonia Gandhi was the party chief and chairperson of the national advisory committee. In his own way, Rahul had rebelled against the party line.
Since then. he has charted out his independent line, which is not in close conformity to the official line. A closer look at his speeches about the tribal, dalit and poor would reflect his genuine concern for them. Chhattisgarh has 32 per cent tribal population, but neither the BJP nor the Congress has ever had an Adivasi leadership, unlike in Jharkhand. Successive governments have carried out military operations against the so-called Naxalite tribals. But no major development work has been undertaken in the state. Ironically, the BJP and the Sangh had adopted more regressive attitude towards them.
In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath is the chief ministerial candidate and is combining soft Hindutva with some hard bargaining. In MP too, both the parties have not done much for the tribal and dalit communities, who still have to face discrimination and feudal oppression. In MP, the dalits and tribals make around 21 per cent of the population, with the state reporting 30 per cent of the atrocities against STs across India.
Winning the assembly elections in the five states will not be enough for Rahul. He has to bring about fundamental changes in the style of functioning of his state leaders. The manner in which the Congress leaders and their government in Karnataka is functioning does not augur well for Congress in 2024. While the immediate challenge before Rahul Gandhi is to win the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, but for truly eliminating the rightist forces, he has to gradually weed out the leaders having rightist orientation from within his own party. This is indeed a tough task ahead of Rahul.
Lok Sabha elections are an entirely distinct affair. Often assembly contests are interpreted as having a greater significance. No doubt this has a major impact on the minds of the voters, but it would be naïve to take the opposition casually. In case the BJP manages to win any of the state elections, it would boost the morale of the RSS and BJP leaders. The way Modi has been focussing on Rajasthan it gives the impression that the battle for Rajasthan is going to be tough.
One thing which ought to be viewed seriously is the narrative which Rahul sets in the assembly elections continues till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. If it continues, it would have a substantial impact on the Lok Sabha elections. (IPA Service)