Rahul Gandhi has come through – this should be the headline in the papers tomorrow. After all the public scrutiny – and rejection – today is truly Rahul Gandhi’s day. He has successfully snatched two states – Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – from the Modi-led BJP which at one time had seemed impossible. And the Congress is engaged in a difficult fight in Madhya Pradesh. The party has lost badly in Telangana but its big gains in the Hindi heartland are extremely significant.
India’s politics since 2014 has been dominated by Modi who has thus far seemed invincible. In fact, the grapevine has it that a couple of years ago, Rahul Gandhi had told his closest associates that the party should prepare for 2024. It was a brutal admission that the Congress stood no chance in the 2019 parliamentary elections. But with just months to go before the general election, Rahul Gandhi is now appearing as a serious threat to Modi’s hegemony.
So, from these elections, five inferences:
1. The results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have broken the myth that in a one-on-one contest, the Congress is no match for the BJP. Since 2014, the Congress lost every bipolar battle – sample Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Assam. In Gujarat and Karnataka, the Congress did manage to put up a fight but could not defeat the BJP on its own strength. The Congress was demoralised that in Goa and Meghalaya, where it won more seats than the BJP, it was outfoxed by its rival and could not form the government. But now, it has defeated the BJP on its home turf.
2. Rahul Gandhi was declared a lost case, not taken seriously since his debut in politics in 2004. Since the rise of Modi at the national level, he has been ridiculed and insulted by the RSS and its affiliate organisations. The pejorative of “Pappu” stuck. But he led from the front in these elections. He minced no words and called the Prime Minister a “thief”. He changed the image of the party from a “Muslim party” to a “Hindu party, a much-criticized makeover that involved a huge risk.
3. Modi’s honeymoon with Indian voters is over. His popularity is definitely on the decline. The slide started just after the massive victory in Uttar Pradesh in March last year. The results of demonetisation and the faulty implementation of GST broke the people’s confidence in him. He had to slog in his own burrow of Gujarat to win the state for his party. He could not perform well in Karnataka and despite the famed machinations of Amit Shah, the Congress and JD(s) came together to form the government in the southern state. Modi was a small presence on the BJP’s posters and banners in MP and Chhattisgarh, with the Chief Ministerial candidates getting pride of place, unimaginable a year ago. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia refused to be dictated to by Modi and Shah, a combo that brooks no dissent usually.
4. These elections have also shown that Hindutva politics will only get the BJP so far and no further. The RSS and its affiliate organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) tried to reinvent the Ayodhya temple as an electoral issue but the results are testimony to the fact that the people no longer trust the BJP on this issue or aren’t moved enough by it. Then, the reinvention of Congress as a Hindu party and Rahul Gandhi as a Hindu leader blurred the line between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP committed a blunder by questioning Rahul Gandhi’s credentials as a Hindu leader. The more he was discussed in terms of being a Hindu leader, the more his religious identity was reinforced. The BJP forgot that Modi was constantly at the centre of the national discourse after the 2002 riots on account of his detractors. He emerged as both the most-hated and most-loved politician. The more Rahul Gandhi’s credentials were challenged and ridiculed, the more he cemented his position in the public space as a “Hindu” leader.
5. There Is No Alternative to Modi – that theory has crashed now. The TINA factor was built as a narrative for his re-election in 2019. But the Congress’ performance will give the party the chops to fulcrum the opposition bloc that is under discussion and should help reduce the fatigue factor that those talks are regularly set back by.
Though it is true that there is a vast difference between assembly and parliamentary elections, this was very much the dress rehearsal for 2019. From now on, Modi will be under constant pressure.