The nation’s politics looks poised for a change in optics as well as substance, boosting the Opposition’s space to the discomfiture of the ruling BJP. The Congress appears to be reinventing itself while forging meaningful links with viable national leaders from different regions.
Only a few months ago, the Congress was seen as having sycophants, no leaders. Sonia Gandhi wasn’t keeping well. Rahul Gandhi, who had resigned as party chief, still appeared to be calling the shots. Power without responsibility was spoken of and this fed into the G-23 thesis of perpetuating dynasty. Led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, and kept in the public eye by eminent lawyer Kapil Sibal, it was the Congress’ ginger group that was gaining traction with each Assembly poll the Congress lost. “Give us true leaders who stand up and fight; give us an elected president who can take on Narendra Modi” was the G-23’s challenging call, and found easy acceptance among those pressing for democracy and hitting at the dynasty.
Their prayer has been answered. The party chief’s election is on in the Congress. And Mr Gandhi, through his singularly powerful act of embarking on an unprecedented march lasting practically half a year, has transformed into a crusader for helping heal a lacerated nation. The party president’s post doesn’t seem to be on his mind though he is being pressured to accept.
A great pity Mr Azad isn’t around to see this. He has taken to his heels, making pitiable noises. Some of his G-23 colleagues -- especially a latecomer like Mani Shankar Aiyar -- have shown public decency and noted this treachery. Some in the G-23 have shown interest in running for party president.
But those that remain in that club are conspicuous by their silence on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which is causing a frisson in the political atmosphere.
One thing seems clear. Leaving aside the diehard political partisan, the
Congress’ Long March, from what reports suggest, has caused a stir among the people through the regions it has passed. Hundreds of non-political people are marching with Rahul Gandhi every day, endorsing what he stands for.
The more difficult political terrain of northern India will be a better test of the yatra’s appeal. It will also matter whether the Congress takes steps to reinforce its rickety organisational apparatus, bedraggled through years of neglect, in the areas through which Mr Gandhi traverses on foot, and other states and regions.
There could hardly be a better time for mass contact of an extraordinary nature touching on daily concerns -- quite unlike the BJP-RSS-style pseudo-religious contrived upsurges that lend themselves to consecrated bricks being carried or the Ram Dhun being sung. In a democracy, it is instructive that BJP mobilisations centre on religious themes alone. Not much else is on offer.
In the ongoing Long March, all the talk is of the dismal economic scene, shooting prices and enervating unemployment, besides the deepening abyss of violent communal strife. With Jairam Ramesh now heading the Congress’ communications, the message is clear for once, unsheathed, and delivered with a sting in the tail. This is new in the Congress.
It is clear Mr Gandhi is setting the discussion agenda even amongst BJP diehards, not the Prime Minister and his cohorts, the cheetah hoopla notwithstanding. With this PM, what is apparent is not real, and what is real is not apparent. Multi-layered propaganda obscures everything, including common sense, but people are catching on.
But for all the games rulers play, it’s fair to say that not since the Emergency have civil society groups -- and leading activists – adopted a strong public posture against the government and dovetailed their protests into that of the protagonist on the Opposition side.
If it was the Janata Party then, it is Mr Gandhi now. True, only the support of civil society groups doesn’t win elections. Poll outcomes are a result of complex actions of political actors. But such widespread civil society endorsement as we are now seeing does promote an idea, and create conditions for its spread and acceptance. It strengthens David, and does discomfit Goliath. It also helps undermine the legitimacy of state power when fortuitously placed in the hands of an insensitive cabal.
It doesn’t matter who will win the election for Congress president. What is slowly becoming clear is that the assertion that the BJP will have an easy ride in the next Lok Sabha poll because no Opposition leader poses a serious challenge to Mr Modi now appears redundant. A challenger is now before us. Whether he plays for Prime Minister, or desires to be a facilitator, will likely turn on the actual numbers in the next Lok Sabha.
Many till now were seriously misled to believe that the BJP and its government had nothing to fear with Mr Gandhi as Congress leader. This emerged from the assiduously spread distortion that Mr Gandhi was inept and intellectually dull. Such is the force of word-of-mouth propaganda in the upper echelons of society, disseminated by millions of paid trolls over a considerable time.
The BJP always knew better, though. That is evident from the 55 hours of intensive but futile questioning of Mr Gandhi in the National Herald case by politicised government agencies that this Congressman is not taken lightly by the wielders of power.
The Congress leader should expect that as his yatra moves to western and northern India, so might its difficulties increase. It is unlikely the establishment will be content with raising dubious questions only about his clothes, and other diversionary stunts. As battle lines deepen, more serious hampering efforts may be expected, not discounting ugly ones. Also, at the level of politics, efforts could be made to manipulate some Opposition parties against others but not against the government.
This is likely as it’s all too clear Rahul Gandhi is being widely seen even outside his party as an indispensable Congressman and a leader who has not been afraid to challenge the government upfront. Indeed, he has the distinction of being the only political leader to do so frontally and regularly. This is widely acknowledged.
While the recent dumping of the overbearing BJP by Nitish Kumar set the ball rolling, and the Bharat Jodo Yatra sets the agenda, there is a new togetherness among key Opposition players. Behind-the-scenes work by Mr Kumar, the still redoubtable Lalu Prasad Yadav, old warhorse Sharad Pawar and DMK supremo Stalin, in coordination with Sonia Gandhi, will be crucial in setting the stage for 2024. Of course, the Prime Minister, feeling besieged, could choose to go to the country early, banking on some spectacular event that entices. The game has suddenly come alive.