Rahul Gandhi emerges as Modi's most formidable challenger

By Kalyani Shankar. Dated: 12/7/2018 12:55:07 PM

Assembly polls a dress rehearsal for 2019 Lok Sabha election

Despite some goof ups, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the main challenger to Modi as some recent surveys show the growing acceptability of Gandhi as Modi's challenger. The Congress strategists are busy projecting Gandhi in a new avatar to counter BJP's Hindutva.

Will Congress President Rahul Gandhi emerge as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls?
He could, if the fortune smiles on him and if the Congress improves its position in the five state assembly polls currently going on in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana. Together, these five states constitute 83 Lok Sabha seats.
These elections are seen as semi-finals before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and also indicate where the BJP stands. The first three states are ruled by the BJP while the Congress rules Mizoram and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi rules Telangana. The BJP is a minor player in these two states.
Stakes are high for the Congress as well as its president Rahul Gandhi, who has been campaigning hard. This will be the first mini general election under his leadership after he took over the reins of the party in March. Sonia Gandhi demitted office after the party had seen its worst by getting just 44 seats in 2014, and now if the Congress could improve, it could be a big gain for the young Gandhi. Early on, Rahul attempted to promote grassroots leaders up the ranks and infuse new blood at the top, but the old guard resisted him successfully. As vice-president, he tried to build his own core group comprising of lightweights like Madhusudan Mistry, C.P Joshi and Mohan Prakash, but once he became the president, he dropped them and turned to the tried and trusted veterans.
Moreover, for the first time since 2014, the Congress, starts as the frontrunner in this round of elections. Much depends on the results of these elections as in 2014 - in Chhattisgarh the BJP won all the 11, in Madhya Pradesh 26 out of 29 seats and in Rajasthan all the 25 Lok Sabha seats. An emphatic win for the BJP will be seen as continuation of the Modi magic. But the challenge between Modi and Rahul is quite interesting. While the BJP will have to win a majority of these five states, Gandhi has to win just one state to put back the party in serious reckoning. For the BJP, retaining power in the Hindi heartland is important to give a message that its base is intact ahead of 2019.
Interestingly, there is no wave in these polls. The chief ministers face serious anti incumbency. The issues are more or less state-specific, but by and large they are power shortage, water, tribal welfare, Naxalism, anti-incumbency, agrarian crisis, petrol price hike, Rafale, demonetisation and GST.
Though polling is yet to be completed in Rajasthan and Telangana, pollsters and political pundits are predicting various scenarios on the election results from doom to the BJP to victory to the Congress. According to C Voter, the Congress might sweep Rajasthan; win Telangana and perhaps Madhya Pradesh by a small margin. Even in Chhattisgarh and Telengana the Congress is locked in a close contest. The satta market, which runs into crores in every election betting, expects a Congress win in Rajasthan and a close fight, with a 50:50 chance for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the assembly elections. The best-case scenario for the Congress would be winning 5-0 or 4-0. Enthused by the predictions, the optimists in the party have already begun to say that they might achieve the unexpected win in all the states. Moreover, such a win would enthuse the opposition and encourage the BJP- baiting parties to come together under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Already some efforts are going on for opposition unity ahead of the 2019 polls.
Despite some goof ups, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the main challenger to Modi as some recent surveys show the growing acceptability of Gandhi as Modi's challenger. The Congress strategists are busy projecting Gandhi in a new avatar to counter BJP's Hindutva. Adopting a soft Hindutva line, Gandhi has been temple hopping and self-proclaiming himself a devotee of Lord Shiva. The Congress has declared him a janeudhaari (wearer of the sacred thread) and a pure-bred Kashmiri Brahmin.
The Congress has everything going for it right now like anti-incumbency in three states, emerging local level leadership and a counter Modi narrative. Its strategy is to corner the BJP through issues like agrarian crisis, unemployment and non-delivery of his 2014 poll promises. The BJP has begun to take the criticisms of Gandhi seriously and counter every statement. A defeat for the Congress in the Hindi heartland would be a further crippling blow ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
For the BJP a face saving scenario is to win at least one of the three big states. A worst-case scenario for the party would be to lose all three, as it will have a cascading effect on the 2019 polls. A mixed result would be a face- saver for both the parties. It would thus keep the question of the 2019 elections wide open.
—(IPA Service)



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