In the course of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi has said that elections and the Congress organisation were not on his mind now. He has also claimed that he “let go of Rahul Gandhi many years ago”. Notwithstanding his unrelenting moves to deliver strong political speeches attacking the BJP government and the RSS and to drum up support for his party, such a cleverly-crafted detachment will be on test this week.
The arduous cross-country march that Rahul is leading is clearly aimed at resurrecting the Congress. And despite the public messaging that his “Yatra is not an electoral exercise”, the party has already chalked out its follow-up campaign to keep the momentum going after January 26 when the Yatra ends in Srinagar. After all, 2023 is a crucial election year.
The Yatra has touched big states bound for the Assembly polls next year – among them Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The party will hold the big-ticket All India Congress Committee (AICC) plenary session in Chhattisgarh – the other key state where the Assembly elections are due next year – through which the Yatra has not passed. In all these states, the party has high stakes.
The Congress is also planning to give a central role to AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the Yatra follow-up campaign. So while the veteran leader and new AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge will manage the mundane organisational affairs in Delhi, the Gandhi siblings will be on the ground everywhere in their bids to give a new lease of life to the ailing grand old party. The division of work is clear and perhaps ideal for the party leaders who do not bat an eyelid when it comes to eulogising the Gandhi family.
It is another matter that many party leaders feel Kharge is perhaps in a better position to take on Modi. Not from a prime ministerial candidate point of view but to counter his barbs, quips and assertions politically. “We should have really played up Khargeji’s comments countering Modi’s chai wala rhetoric. Modi really had no answer to that,” a leader said. He was referring to Kharge’s remarks in Gujarat that somebody at least drank Modi’s tea but nobody drinks tea from him. It was a reference to his disadvantaged Dalit background.
But there is palpable tension in the Congress about the results in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls that will be declared on December 8. The party is spending all its energies and focusing all its attention on making the Yatra a success, which, it believes, is getting huge traction. So will it translate into electoral success? Every single leader of the Congress is desperately hoping that “we should at least win one state.” The unsaid fear is that a defeat in both the states, Gujarat and Himachal Pardesh, could deflate the momentum created carefully around the Yatra.
The “one state” they are looking to win is Himachal. Rahul had stayed away from the hill state, but Priyanka invested herself into the Congress’s campaign there. But all eyes are on Gujarat. Not just for Rahul or the Congress, this week is crucial for the Opposition as a whole. The contours of the political opposition which will take on the Narendra Modi juggernaut in 2024 could well be written or rewritten in the wake of the Gujarat election outcome.
Irrespective of these poll results, the Congress will remain the largest Opposition party on paper but a better than expected performance by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Modi’s turf – Gujarat, where the Congress campaign had been listless – will surely shake things up. So has the Congress drawn up a plan B, or the Yatra, its follow-up campaign and a possible another east to west or west to east hybrid march the party’s only immediate plan.
Most of the Opposition parties seem wary of Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP – they believe he is unpredictable and “ideologically agnostic” – but they may not need to worry as much as the Congress. The possibility of a non-Congress anti-BJP alliance taking shape looks bleak. But an excellent performance in Gujarat could well see Kejriwal venturing out into other states and in all likelihood he will be eyeing states where the Congress occupies one of the poles.
The Congress leaders argue that the AAP has little or no presence in states going to the polls next year. But one could hear curious questions about the AAP’s “Delhi model” even in remote areas of Madhya Pradesh when the Yatra passed through the state.
While Rahul continues his “tapasya (penance)”, Kharge has slowly started asserting himself – the first glimpse of which came at a meeting of the Congress Steering Committee he held Sunday. His tough talk to the AICC leaders, calling for accountability and performance, marked a change. He has asked the party leaders in charge of states to come up with a roadmap, which could spur the party into action. After all, the Congress is up against a party, the BJP, with a much superior organisational machinery.
“In states where Assembly elections will be held from now to 2024… what is the schedule of activities till elections? Our responsibilities will not be complete if you, your secretaries, state Congress presidents, MLAs and MPs don’t prepare a blueprint on these and other important issues, and implement them on the ground,” Kharge asked the senior party leaders.
The hope for the average Congress workers is for Rahul and Priyanka to remain on the ground, energising the rank and file, and Kharge to walk the talk and tighten the screws on the leaders of the moribund organisation.