Rahul focuses on strategy for a No NaMo 2019 (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT New Delhi | 20th Jun 2015
Sources involved in planning the political strategy of soon-to-be Congress president Rahul Gandhi say that the 45-year-old Congress heir's objective is "to ensure that Narendra Modi become a single-term Prime Minister", rather than Rahul himself becoming the fourth member of his family since 1947 to become Prime Minister. A key adviser said, "Rahul has age on his side, he can wait till 2024 before taking over the government." His strategists say that "the willingness to hand over the baton (of Prime Ministership) to another leader from a different party will give an advantage to the Congress in the post-poll negotiations likely to follow the 2019 verdict". What has changed for Rahul Gandhi is that "The CP (Congress president, i.e. Sonia Gandhi) has finally woken up to the fact that the veterans advising her are out of tune with the times". These sources claim that "during 2013 and in the run-up to the 2014 elections especially", Rahul Gandhi was "deeply frustrated by the adherence of his mother to the counsel of the traditional politicians surrounding her". Things began to change after the May 2014 defeat, "the scale of which convinced Sonia Gandhi that it was time to divest the traditional politicians in the party of their power" and trust Rahul Gandhi. "The rise of Modi showed that the culture of politics in India has changed, yet throughout the rise of the Modi phenomenon (during 2011-2014), the Congress functioned as though it were back in the 1970s". The party organisation therefore "failed to connect with the aspirational middle class voter, while the Manmohan Singh government was in their perception disconnected from the poor", thereby losing out on both voting blocs.
Rahul Gandhi's strategists believed that the party's pre-election focus on Modi was a "mistake", and that it was done to "consolidate the minority vote", which instead went in several states to other parties. However, they feel that a concentrated focus on the Prime Minister will now pay dividends. "The goodwill for the BJP is concentrated on Narendra Modi, and if this goodwill disappears, so will that for the party", said a key strategist, who pointed to the Delhi Assembly election results as indicating that "confidence of the electorate in the BJP is falling". The effort will now be to show that "Modi's words do not match his deeds, and that once in office, this has become obvious". They will constantly remind the electorate of promises made and not kept.
Strategists for the Congress heir (many of whom are non-political) speak of the "boomerang effect" of using the Prime Minister's own campaign rhetoric against him, especially on the issue of black money and crony capitalism. They claim that a steady stream of scandals will surface in the coming months about the workings of the Central and state governments, warning that "people's patience is over".
A network of friendly officials is believed to be silently at work collecting material from inside the government to try and prove that corruption and favouritism are still rampant. They say that the data collected will be released in stages. Honesty and efficiency are the two factors which attracted voters to the BJP, and the effort of Rahul's aides will be to show that neither is present in the BJP-led government, which took charge on 26 May 2014. It is in such a context that "Rahul vetoed the suggestion by four senior advisers of Sonia Gandhi to work out a compromise (during the last session of Parliament) that would allow important bills to get passed with Congress-drafted modifications". The three top aides of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kamal Nath and Ahmed Patel have each excellent connections with the BJP, including at the highest level. However, "since the 2014 debacle, Sonia Gandhi has decided to go with Rahul rather than reject his views as was done often in the past". From the start, "Rahul has been in favour of a confrontational stance inside and outside Parliament, so that bills get stalled and the government is shown to be ineffective". These sources say that the "decisive moment came just before the last session of Parliament, when Sonia Gandhi rejected advice from key advisers to seek cooperation with the BJP and instead backed Rahul Gandhi's aggressive approach towards the BJP", in particular the Prime Minister.
These sources say that Rahul Gandhi "has a deep personal conviction that the country cannot afford a second term in office of Prime Minister Modi, and has therefore made his removal (rather than Rahul's own assumption of the job) the priority". Hence the accommodating posture towards anti-BJP regional parties in Bihar, which Rahul strategists anticipate will be followed by an alliance in UP with either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party, "forged in a spirit of compromise according to the MGR formula", where the Congress makes concessions on Assembly seats and gets rewarded by the allocation of a higher number of Lok Sabha seats in any alliance of which it is a party. Rahul strategists believe that a "defeat in Bihar will affect the BJP in the 2016 polls as well as help ensure a bad performance in UP" the next year. "Once both Bihar and UP are lost, the Modi government will become a lame duck entity", these sources say, adding that, "even before, the effort will be to show that there is no performance and only hype in its functioning". A key strategist was scornful of the Swachh Bharat and yoga initiatives of Prime Minister Modi, saying that "not yoga postures, but jobs matter to the voter, and in this, Modi and his government will fail".
Rahul's strategists say that their sampling has shown a marked decline in confidence within the electorate that the promises made by the BJP in the 2014 campaign will be honoured, and that the Congress "will build on this distrust". They repeat that the objective in the 2019 polls is "not to ensure a Congress government or even a Congress-led government, but to keep the BJP out". The objective is to "reduce the BJP tally to a maximum of 150 Lok Sabha seats and to raise the Congress score to at least 175 Lok Sabha seats so that the party will have a dominant influence in the next government". A source pointed to the 1970s' Kerala experiment, where "the Chief Ministership was conceded by the Congress to the CPI, even though the former party had more seats". He added that "Rahul is not in awe of the Prime Ministership and has shown this during 2012-13, when it was his for the asking". He rubbished reports of a disconnect between Priyanka Vadra and Rahul Gandhi, saying that "the entire family is close to each other" and that any talk of differences is "motivated". He was, however, evasive about Priyanka's political plans, saying simply that "a decision on this has yet to be taken". However, he indicated that it was "very likely" that Priyanka would contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, presumably from Rae Bareli.
Congress sources say that after the lapse of a year, "action on corruption charges against our people will lack credibility", referring to the ongoing CBI investigations into Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh and Shankersinh Vaghela in Gujarat. A top strategist pointed out that "the window of opportunity (to prosecute UPA influentials) was during the first six months (May-October 2014) in the glow of public adulation for Modi and discontent with the UPA. Now that window has closed and action will invite public doubt rather than support".
A source claimed that "We have been kept informed by honest CBI officers that a top BJP functionary is in constant contact with the organisation to influence investigations", and added that "proof of such interference will be made public at an appropriate time". No proof was offered to substantiate such a charge of interference. "A year has gone by without any charges being made by the Modi government (against UPA leaders), so to do so now when the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi is boldly opposing the BJP, will be shown to be vindictive and we are not afraid", the key strategist warned, adding that "dirt will be met with dirt" and that "those living in houses with stained glass windows had better be cautious while throwing stones".
Clearly, Rahul Gandhi has ensured that the Congress is in a fightback mode, just a year after its worst-ever defeat in a Lok Sabha election in what his strategists say is a repeat of 1977, when in less than two years, the Congress won back the public support it had forfeited in that election. However, Narendra Modi is not Morarji Desai, although both are from the same state, and can be expected to respond to the challenge posed by a Rahul-rejuvenated Congress soon.