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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Nov 2017  Gujarat election is Rahul’s litmus test

Gujarat election is Rahul’s litmus test

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.
Published : Nov 26, 2017, 4:34 am IST
Updated : Nov 26, 2017, 4:34 am IST

The Congress, which Rahul Gandhi is all set to lead is very different from what it was in the past.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting at 10, Janpath in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)
 Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting at 10, Janpath in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

While the official announcement of who will be the next Congress president will be known in a few days from now, it hardly leaves any doubt that Rahul Gandhi is all set to take over as the new president of the party. The long-awaited change in the party leadership will soon be known to the world. Questions are being asked if this change will help in rebuilding the party or if electoral fortunes of the party will change after this.

It is difficult to imagine that the problem of the Congress (being unable to win elections) will come to an end with Rahul Gandhi becoming the party president. It will still be long before he can lead the party to electoral successes. But electing Rahul Gandhi as the new president would certainly help in keeping the Congress party united.

 

A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family heading the Congress leaves little scope for a rebellion within the party, even though there may be some undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the leadership. But any effort to elect someone from outside the family to lead the party might result in a situation of serious infighting within the Congress with various factions challenging each other.

Except keeping the party united during difficult times, Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the top post hardly means anything. It will be too much to expect that the same Rahul Gandhi who has till now not won any votes for the Congress will suddenly become a vote-catcher.

 

The Congress, which Rahul Gandhi is all set to lead is very different from what it was in the past. Let us not even look at how strong was the party’s support base was when leaders like Kripalani, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Jawaharlal Nehru, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy or Indira Gandhi headed it. The leadership of each of these persons was unchallenged.

The Congress had a decent support base even when Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi became the party chief. When Rajiv Gandhi became the Congress president in 1984, the party had an overwhelming support among the people, a record 415 seats in the Lok Sabha and about 48 per cent share of the national votes.

 

When Sonia Gandhi took over as the party president in 1999, the party had witnessed decline and was not in power at the Centre but it still had a sizeable support (28 per cent vote share and 114 members in the Lok Sabha). At that moment, the Congress was the ruling party in as many as 16 states. Sonia Gandhi did face initial challenges from Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma, who eventually walked out of the party, but later she managed to consolidate her position and led the party to victory in 2004 Lok Sabha elections. For most of the previous presidents, the leadership was not as challenging as it is going to be for Rahul Gandhi. Those leaders faced the challenge only from the senior party leaders. Rahul Gandhi faces a far more tough challenge as compared to any other Congress chief in the past as the party at present is at the lowest level of popularity. And the challenge comes from none other than the leader of the party in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Though it is true that
Rahul Gandhi’s ability to counter the high-pitched campaigning of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is limited, it would be unreasonable to question all his abilities.

 

The Congress has 44 members in the Lok Sabha and its vote share during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was 19.3 per cent. The story of the decline of the party in not limited to only the national elections. Its electoral success is very poor even in the state Assembly and local body elections. The party has hardly managed to win any Assembly election held after 2014 parliamentary elections, except Punjab. At the moment, the Congress is ruling only in five states — Karnataka, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Of these five states — Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram — are small and hence of very little electoral significance at the national level. Of the total 3,896 Assembly seats in the country, the Congress has 732 seats as compared to BJP’s 1306; 1858 seats are with regional parties. If seen in terms of vote share, the Congress has a combined vote share of 18.6 per cent votes in the present Assembly while the BJP has 25.6 per cent. The Congress’ performance in the local body elections in different states is no better.

 

The parties’ vote share in Assembly polls might change after Himachal Pradesh results are out. Indications are strong that the Congress might lose in HP; and find it difficult to retain power in Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram which go to poll early next year.

Rahul Gandhi can hope to change the wheel of fortune in the favour of Congress only if the party manages to win the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, capitalising on anti-incumbency mood. The two states with a BJP government for last 15 years may be facing an anti-incumbency mood of the voters. If that does not happen, the task cutout for Rahul Gandhi, of leading the party to victory during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which already seems difficult, would become an impossible one.

 

But if Rahul Gandhi manages to pull a victory in Gujarat, the fortunes of the party and Rahul Gandhi might change sooner than later. But that certainly is an uphill task.

Tags: rahul gandhi, indira gandhi, sonia gandhi