The Karnataka results may have thrown up uncertainties for the future of who will govern the state. Yet the verdict was unambiguous on one thing: The Congress and its president Rahul Gandhi don’t have a counter to Narendra Modi.
Rahul Gandhi fought a good campaign alongside the party’s chief ministerial candidate Siddaramaiah. He addressed a total of 38 rallies as per reports and presided over many corner meetings across all regions of the state. He brought up relevant issues including the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) decision to readmit the Bellary Reddy brothers associated with the illegal mining scam of the Yeddyurappa years (2008-2011) as well as the failings of the Central government on unemployment, agrarian distress and other issues. Yet, the combined muscle of Gandhi and Siddaramaiah was not sufficient to nullify the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s 22 election rallies, 21 of which were made over a period of eight days right at the end of the Karnataka campaign.
Where does that leave Rahul Gandhi? And can the Congress benefit in the upcoming poll season if Gandhi does more of what was on display during the Karnataka campaign?
The answers to these questions are not very hard to figure out if one looks at Gandhi’s strategy since he became Congress chief in December 2017. In his first speech as the Congress chief he said: “They (BJP) divide, we (Congress) unite. They ignite fires, we douse them. They show anger, we show love. That is the difference between us and them.”
It’s an irony of contemporary politics that Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are closely bound in a relationship where one has shaped the career of another
And from then on, increasingly, Gandhi has tried to position himself as the arch anti-Modi, embodying all the ideals and values that Modi does not have, just as the Congress he’s now helming is meant to be all that the BJP is not. But things are never as pat in politics or in life.
While this strategy has worked on social media where polarised positions bring gratification in satisfyingly public ways, real life politics eludes black and white formulations. At least, it does that if you don’t get to set the agenda.
For Modi’s had a big lead in shaping the public discourse around his own persona and what he stands for. Gandhi seems to have come into the game belatedly and has had little success so far thanks to Modi himself.
It’s an irony of contemporary politics that Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are closely bound in a relationship where one has shaped the career of another. Literally. The Congress’ decision to persist with the Nehru-Gandhi family has provided the BJP and Modi with the ballast to frame himself as the poor chaiwalla-turned-prime minister. The BJP’s all out campaign against Rahul Gandhi, veering on the slanderous and uncouth on social media, has shaped Gandhi’s political persona. Both online and offline.
Gandhi has emerged as willing to take on the BJP and Modi head on without appearing to resort to the level of political rhetoric used against him. This is the remarkable change that has been seen in Gandhi during the years Modi has been prime minister.
Yet, his strategy of being everything that Modi is not, cannot be carried too far. For any election where Modi is the central issue almost always benefits the BJP. Modi, for his part, has not only modelled himself as the anti-Nehru Gandhi but has also channelised the anger of the middle classes and the other disaffected sections with the Congress which he portrays as a party of elites.
Congress and Gandhi will be grappling with their Modi problem once again in Assembly elections in the Hindi belt states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year and the general election in 2019. Rahul Gandhi has to find it in himself to shift his public persona away from Modi and towards a more assertive portrayal of himself. Not as a charmer, which can win you likes and follows on social media, but as a political leader who can play hard ball when necessary. Only then will allies of all major parties who may want to ally with the Congress in 2019 take him seriously. For now, that job is still being handled by his mother, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, as the current confabulations in Karnataka are proving.
In conversation with an interviewer in Malaysia a few months ago, Gandhi candidly spoke of coming to terms with the assassinations of his father and grandmother. It’s now time for him to lay another burden to rest. That of taking on Narendra Modi, the person.