The Congress is eager to win the coming Assembly elections not so much because it wants to halt the juggernaut of defeats it has faced over the last more than four years particularly, but because it is desperate to shore up Rahul Gandhi’s fortune. Developments of the last few days have been especially embarrassing for the party president. Despite his desperation to strike a deal with BSP supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav for the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan Assembly polls, both these regional stalwarts cocked a snook at the grand old party. They are more inclined to cling with each other rather with the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress.
A humiliated Congress has now pinned its hopes on victories in the bigger State Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The party believes that, if it is able to displace the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in these States, Rahul Gandhi’s stock will shoot up and regional satraps that are now sidelining him will rush to his side. It is banking on these two northern States because they appear to offer the party the best chance to make a comeback. There is the anti-incumbency factor, for one. Also, the BJP has to deal with a number of perceptional issues, such as rural distress, unemployment etc. Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana too will vote for new Assemblies, but the big two remain Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Besides, the Congress has little prospects in the other major State of Telangana, although it has aligned with the Telugu Desam Party there. Even if the Congress wins Chhattisgarh and Mizoram, and do fairly well in Telangana, it will do little to burnish Rahul Gandhi’s image if the party ends up losing in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
As things stand, Rahul Gandhi is not the preferred choice of any major regional leader who may — just may — be inclined to work together with the Congress to defeat the common enemy, the Modi-and Amit Shah-led BJP. Barring perhaps the DMK and Lalu Prasad’s RJD, no regional party has categorically endorsed the Congress president’s candidature for prime ministership. All have sought the diplomatic way out, stating that the choice of the Prime Minister would be made once the BJP-led NDA is ousted. In the given situation, Rahul Gandhi can become Prime Minister if the Congress secures a majority on its own; if the Congress emerges as the single largest party with enough numbers to draw in others to its camp; or, if the regional heavyweights suddenly merit in his leadership and accept him as the leader of a larger non-NDA alliance. And, in the given situation, none of this is likely.
That said, the Congress would certainly be in a stronger position in case it dislodges the BJP regimes in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Every senior party leader would be quick to credit Rahul Gandhi for the win. This would not just please the Congress president but also be a good strategy to avoid giving credit to fellow leaders. for instance, it’s difficult to imagine Sachin Pilot effusively claiming that Ashok Gehlot is responsible for a Congress win in Rajasthan; or Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath, and Digvijaya Singh crediting each other for a victory in Madhya Pradesh.
However, contrary to perceptions in the media, and despite various poll survey findings, the BJP’s defeat in either of the two States is not a done deal. One has to only recall the Gujarat example in this regard. Most reports said that the BJP, saddled with a huge anti-incumbency of two decades and various socio-political movements such as the Patidar agitation and unrest among the Scheduled Caste community, would finally succumb to the Congress’s renewed onslaught. It was certainly the best chance the Congress had in two decades. In the end, the Congress certainly did better than in 2012, but not well enough to prevent the BJP from emerging with a simple majority. Rahul Gandhi’s party was left basking in ‘moral victory’.
But now, moral victory will not help the Congress chief. 2019 is not far, and if Rahul Gandhi cannot sign off 2018 with clear wins, he and his party will not be entertained by the powerful regional leaders who, in their respective backyards, are a force to reckon with. The Congress will then lose out even in post-poll alliances.