How’s Cong’s poll strategy shaping up?

More about the author A popular perception in urban India, and one that is widely prevalent among its middle class citizens is of a discernible disenchantment with the prime minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, and his nearly four-year-old government. Influenced as well as projected in part by social and non-mainstream media, this feeling, depending on who you talk to, ranges from anger at his government’s performance and inability to deliver on several promises that he had made before the elections, to shock, disgust and displeasure over the response (or inaction) by his government or his party officials to several horrific incidents of crimes such as the rape and murder of minor girls, and instances of violence against minority communities. In between those two kinds of views are feelings of dismay over the slow economic growth, tardy employment generation, growing farm distress, astonishing examples of bank frauds, the pains of a badly thought-through demonetisation policy, and the introduction of a new tax system that was to simplify things but has made them more complex.

neurontin 600 mg tablets Too much may be made of these perceptions. Also, they may represent the thoughts of only a small sliver of India’s electorate. Yet, many, including some who had voted for him and his party in 2014, have begun to lose some of the confidence they had reposed in them. The logical question that emerges from all of this is: whom will they repose their confidence in when they are invited to vote again in 2019’s general elections? The Congress, still smarting from its rout in 2014, obviously wants to capitalise on the prevalent mood and hopes to stage a comeback. But can it? And, more important, what is it doing to try and make that happen?

cheap priligy uk The party, which was decimated in the last elections and managed only 48 of Lok Sabha’s 543 elected seats, has begun with some strategic moves. First, there were the expected ones such as the election (unopposed) of Mr. Rahul Gandhi as the Congress’s new president. And, an unsubtle shift or makeover of his public persona. His activity on social media, which was previously reactive and largely ineffectual, became more personalised (his twitter handle changed from the rather silly @OfficeofRG to @RahulGandhi) and the nature of his tweets changed from indignant emotional outpourings to ones that were laced with wit, tact and facts aimed at baiting Mr. Modi more directly. Mr. Gandhi’s public utterances too became less erratic and more focused.

These, however, are superficial changes. More significant are the ones that may have begun shaping Congress’s coming election strategy. Some of them actually began in the run-up to the state elections in Gujarat where the BJP won but by numbers that were below its expectations. During the course of the Congress’s Gujarat campaign, Mr. Gandhi who would earlier rarely be seen overtly wooing the majority Hindu vote, made visits to 25 Hindu temples (offering photo ops). The temple tours are a way of reassuring Hindu voters that the Congress stood for them too and it would be wrong to paste a label of being pro-Muslim on the party. At the same time, however, as Mr. Gandhi and his party’s stance on the rape and murder of a young girl in Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir demonstrates, the Congress hasn’t changed its stand on justice for Muslims in cases where they are allegedly targeted. You could call it “re-balancing” the secular approach. Similarly, in the case of farmers, scheduled castes and tribes, the economy, and recent cases of corruption and bank fraud, Mr. Gandhi has been vocal about taking up the cudgels to do the right thing.

Those kinds of themes have already formed key issues that his party’s campaign is incorporating before state elections, notably in Karnataka where polls will be held later this month. But behind those are more important structural changes. Many, including seasoned journalists watching every move in the Congress party, had expected Mr. Gandhi to make radical changes after he took charge at its helm. Basing their views on the practices he favoured in the past, they expected the 47-year-old new president to sweep out the old guard and bring in his own, relatively young aides and install them in key party positions, at the national and regional levels. That didn’t happen. Instead, Mr. Gandhi has resurrected some of the old guard. In the key state of Madhya Pradesh, which BJP rules and one that will go to the polls later this year, he has appointed the veteran parliamentarian, Mr. Kamal Nath, 71, instead of Mr. Jyotiraditya Scindia, 47, who is closer to Mr. Gandhi. For Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP won last year by trouncing everybody else, he has put another veteran, Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, 69, in charge. And in Odisha, he has brought back yet another, Mr. Niranjan Patnaik, 70, to head the party’s state unit. In Rajasthan, also a BJP-ruled state, the former chief minister, Mr. Ashok Gehlot, 67, and not Mr. Sachin Pilot, 40, will probably be the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate when the state goes to poll later this year.

These moves have to be viewed, not only for the roles the new incumbents will play regionally, but also for what they could be responsible for nationally. Mr. Nath has personally won nine parliamentary elections and has not only been an effective mobiliser of funds for the party but also a seasoned on-the-ground election strategist for the Congress. Ditto for Mr Azad and the others. In the coming 2019 elections, Mr. Gandhi will be pitted against the election machine of the BJP, which is led by an astute poll battle strategist, the party’s president, Mr. Amit Shah. The Modi-Shah combine’s formidable campaigning might is now, after the 2014 polls, the subject of lore. To fight against that, Mr. Gandhi would need firepower that is far heftier than what a team of newly minted younger and less experienced team can conceivably provide.

The other significant change is in Mr. Gandhi’s attitude towards leading the party. He is more decisive now. It is clear that he now wants to lead from the front (some would say, though, that as president he has no option other than to do that) and will not shy away from projecting himself as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate—something that he avoided doing in 2014. In fact, insiders in Congress’s upper echelons say he is in favour of one power centre. Unlike what his mother, the past president of the Congress, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, did. In the event that the Congress gets to form a government, Mr. Gandhi sees an advantage in being the party’s president as well as the prime minister.

A vital aspect of the Congress’s electoral strategy for 2019 will be how it manages and forges alliances with other parties. The BJP rules in a swathe of states. The BJP, either on its own or with allies, rules 22 of India’s 29 states. The Congress is in power in only three. In the others, largely it is the regional parties that rule. On its own, the Congress cannot wish for winning a majority in the Lok Sabha. It will have to depend on alliances. The UPA-1 (2004-09) and UPA-2 (2009-14) regimes were led by Congress but the party would not have been able to form the government in both instances without the support of around a dozen other parties, many of them regional powerhouses.

Congress insiders say for managing alliances too Mr. Gandhi has a strategy: Mrs. Gandhi. The past president (she is now 71) still commands significant influence over the party’s existing and potential allies and has the tact and experience of negotiating with them that she has honed over many years of heading the party before her son took over last year. In many instances, alliances could mean that the Congress may have to be content with a secondary rather than a primary role. In UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the Congress’s potential allies have more heft than itself. Those four states together account for 202 of Lok Sabha’s 543 seats and are, therefore, crucial for targeting a national win. To manage and forge ties with the powerful regional leaders to fight for a possible UPA-3 victory, Mr. Gandhi would need help. And that could come from his mother.


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