There are two direct outcomes of fiercely contested Gujarat Assembly elections; that the fort Narendra Modi is no more impregnable and that Lok Sabha elections-2019 would be a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi direct contest. Since last General Elections it was BJP (read Modi) desperately trying to ensure such a line-up. Come Gujarat-2017 and there was a shift in roles as Gandhi took everyone by surprise by challenging the lion in his den and effectively too thereby giving a finality to the line-up for future electoral contests that his political rival had earlier sought.
It was widely expected that BJP would scrape through as powerful duo of Modi and the party chief Amit Shah would do their utmost to save their home-pitch despite their lofty claim of winning 150 seats in a house of 182. And the outcome went on expected lines. The duo has managed to save their turf by the skin of their teeth how so ever boastful of victory they and their supporters might be.
But the surprise package of this election has been the newly anointed Congress president Rahul Gandhi who became the party chief two days before poll results were declared. A picture of reluctance till the other day, he came out all guns blazing to match his political rival’s aggression mostly wayward, with calculated retort, pun, and fun and at times packed with catchy slogans and strong sarcasm.
He emerged victorious in defeat and it was but natural for his supporters and critics to immediately talk as to how he would be able to handle the challenges ahead in the run-up-to the Lok Sabha elections not too far. Yes, he has a formidable challenge to refurbish his own image through changing the perception, rightly or wrongly, painstakingly built by Team Modi portraying him as a non-performer and a reluctant politician, and galvanise the almost crumbled Congress structure to make it worth fighting the BJP’s well-oiled organisational machinery.
But a much bigger challenge for him is extraneous and would entail convincing the like-minded political parties of his leadership to stitch and spearhead a new alliance if he is to stop the Modi-juggernaut in 2019. The challenge on this front is daunting as Rahul is beginning from a place of total lack of confidence in him by the leaders of friendly parties for which he has to blame himself to a great extent. Ostensibly, he basked under the glory of his mother and the then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who despite the political-novice tag attached to her forged and handled the UPA alliance with maturity winning her the accolades. All this while the focus still remained on him and his each and every movement was closely watched by the alliance partners knowing fully-well that they would have to deal with him directly soon.
Gujarat has definitely given him headway on this front as well. A totally transformed Rahul took the like-minded political parties by as much surprise as were his own partymen. The whispers of criticism gave way to a word of praise and hope to these parties about the prospects of a Congress-led combine to take on Modi in the post-Sonia era.
Still, Rahul has a long way to go to make his leadership acceptable to the alliance partners. There is no doubt that the partners including some tough nuts such as Mamta Banerjee of Trinmool Congress, Sharad Pawar of Nationalist Congress Party and even the Left grouping leaders have not much options to take on the BJP but come under the Congress-led umbrella . But still, it would need convincing by him that he meant serious business. The only way to convince them and also the public at large would be through carrying forward the spirit of Gujarat by giving a further account of his leadership capabilities.
The fact that he single-handedly managed to unsettle Modi-Amit Shah combo in Gujarat has won Rahul appreciation from all quarters including his rivals. Even some awestruck sections of BJP are often heard these days mentioning that Rahul has given a torrid time to the duo in Gujarat notwithstanding their utterly aggressive and misdirected spokespersons belting out scorn at him.
Much would depend on how he approaches the like-minded political parties as he would have to begin this exercise with a strong baggage of history. His mother had developed an excellent rapport with the allies and won their respect. Forging alliances is all about being flexible among other things. Flexibility is not a trait attached with Rahul but recent developments have shown that he was ready to shed the tag of being inflexible or at least being seen so and develop a working model.
However, having seen the malfunctioning of UPA-I and II from close quarters which was mostly on account buckling under the allies’ black-mailing tactics, he will have to develop a different working model. He would have to ensure that flexibility is not misconstrued as license to raise unreasonable demands that ultimately led to alleged scams during the UPA regimes.
The prospective allies mostly would be regional players. Fortunately for him a new set of leadership has either emerged or emerging in the regional parties as well as is the case with Congress. His real test would also be to deal at the same time with political rivals within a particular state despite the existence of new leadership. For instance, he has a forged friendship with Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav but at the same time he would have to use his skills to rope in Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati in order to forge a formidable front against BJP in Uttar Pradesh. A similar scenario would exist in West Bengal as he would be required to deal with both Trinmool Congress and the Left Parties.
As was clear from his Gujarat campaign, Rahul would harp on a strong counter anti-corruption diatribe against Modi Government and BJP. In a way he is trying to hit them with the very weapon that badly bruised Congress in election after election in a bid to puncture the high moral ground which Modi has taken ever since 2014.
In order to give teeth to his counter-offensive in exposing corruption in ruling dispensation Rahul will also have to deal with his key ally Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav’s recent conviction in yet another case related to fodder scam. RJD is a force to reckon with in Bihar and with entire Yadav family under the scanner in different cases of corruption, it would be testing time again for Rahul as how to deal with Laloo Yadav clan.