If the Congress ended 2015 on a high note, powered by the victory of the grand alliance in Bihar and elated by Rahul Gandhi shedding his inertia, 2016 was a year of despondency for the grand old party until it sensed a political opportunity for itself in the closing months. Electorally, its slide continued. Organisationally, it remained at a standstill but politically the party, and especially Rahul, showed signs of aggression and revival towards the end of the year.
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While his party punched above its weight in Parliament, he embraced, rather diffidently, the politics of eyeballs – the kind played rather successfully by both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. He constantly attacked the PM, hurled corruption charges at him, even accused him of hiding behind the blood of soldiers.
However, it has been a dispiriting year for the Congress, especially after the humiliating defeat in Assam and a loss of power in Kerala. Its victory in far away Puducherry and the marginally better showing in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal were of little or no consequence. The exit of veterans like Ajit Jogi, Vijay Bahuguna, Rita Joshi and Sudip Deb Barman and the musical chair game for power in Arunachal Pradesh and the final exodus by its flock of MLAs, made for a bitter pill and compounded its woes.
It did score a moral as well as political victory in Uttarakhand where its government was toppled and then reinstated by the courts.
Rahul’s leadership style came in for questioning again and again with fingers pointed at his ability to lead and command the respect of his colleagues.
On the other hand, the unending speculation about Rahul’s elevation as the Congress president, replacing his mother who had been in the saddle for 18 long years, virtually reduced the inevitable change of guard to a matter of joke and ridicule. The Congress Working Committee – a body of veterans – nevertheless cleared the decks for his elevation towards the end of the year in November.
The party was unable to get its act together until November 8. It had sought in vain to gain political capital out of Rohit Vemula’s suicide, dabbled in the JNU sedition charges– Rahul made a dash to JNU as well as Hyderabad University – which surprised many in the party. But it tied itself up in knots over the surgical strikes and curiously let the constitutional amendment on GST be cleared by the Rajya Sabha despite opposition from within the party.
November 8 brought about a change. If Prime Minister Modi believes that note ban was a “game changer” of an idea, it has become the last desperate straw to clutch at for the Congress. The body language of leaders changed remarkably and the party has perhaps begun to see some light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.
But despite all the bravado by Rahul, the real test and perhaps the biggest challenge for the Congress will come in the next three months. Will it be able to stem its electoral decline in next year’s state elections?
Rahul has staked everything in Uttar Pradesh where the party has been out of power for the last three decades. From hiring poll strategist Prashant Kishor to departing from established practice of not announcing a chief ministerial face, from hitting the road himself to putting in place a new team in the form of the experienced Ghulam Nabi Azad and Sheila Dikshit and the popular Raj Babbar, he has tried everything.
The other challenge is in Punjab where the AAP is threatening to emerge the dark horse. Uttarakhand is a tough battle as party leaders admit the sympathy factor no long exists while the party is still to formulate a plan in Goa. In Manipur, many believe the current unrest could benefit the Congress which is eying a fourth term at power. Although 2017 will have no bearing on the 2019 battle, a further slide in the Congress’s electoral fortunes could raise questions about the party’s ability to take on Modi two years later.
The grand old party’s preeminence among opposition parties is also at stake as Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar fancy a national role for themselves and have already taken strides in that direction, further rupturing the opposition unity and muddying the 2019 election.
The visible changes:
Ever since he returned from a two-month sabbatical last year, Rahul had become visible and audible. But he shifted gears in the latter half of 2016 adopting a political style practised and perfected by the likes of Kejriwal. He gifted the political lexicon a new addition – `earthquake’. Throwing caution to winds, Rahul turned to the Sahara-Birla papers to target the Prime Minister despite knowing well that the lists have the names of some Congress leaders and his strategy could boomerang. But he seems to have realised that in politics, sometimes noise is useful and serves an effective purpose.
The subtle changes:
The latter half of the year saw the old guard and Rahul working in tandem. Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel was suddenly back in action, charting out the party’s strategy to the tee in Parliament along with Azad, contacting opposition leaders to bring them onto one stage on the issue of demonetisation and even shadowing Rahul when he was detained by the police in Delhi. Patel has been made head of a coordination committee set up by the party to draw up the protest plans on demonetisation. True to his style, he was at the Constitution Club while Rahul addressed the press conference with Mamata Banerjee and other leaders but never came to the fore.