What are the political prospects of Rahul Gandhi, elected Congress president last week? His electoral track record is dismal. Congress has been thrashed repeatedly in recent years. Among major states, it rules only in Punjab and Karnataka, and could lose the latter next year. Rahul has been pulverised in campaigns he personally led in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, losing most assembly segments that historically were the bailiwick of the Gandhi family. Despite his spirited Gujarat campaign, exit polls suggest an easy BJP win.
His one TV interview with Arnab Goswami was a fiasco. With better speech writers and handlers, he has recently sounded and tweeted better. However, his party is stuck with the image of a corrupt money-machine.
Many analysts groan that Congress has become an appendage of the Gandhi family, and long for a rejuvenated party minus the family. This is cuckoo-cloud stuff. Creating a Congress party without the Gandhis was tried before, and it was called the Janata Party. It had no internal glue, and quickly disintegrated. Congress politicians dislike one another, and stick together only because the Gandhi glue promises them power. Remove that glue, and nothing holds.
Therefore, some analysts believe Congress is in terminal decline, with leadership quality falling steadily from Nehru to Rahul. Such pessimism is overdone. Rahul does indeed have chances. The best proof is the record of his mother, Sonia.
She became Congress president before the 1998 general election, and won only 144 seats out of 543. This was actually better than Narasimha Rao’s 140 seats in 1996, but proved Congress could no longer win on its own. Next came the 1999 general election. Congress plummeted to an all-time low of 114 seats. The media blamed Sonia.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee then ruled with high popularity ratings until the 2004 general election. The BJP dominated opinion polls. Many analysts said Congress was doomed unless it shed its dynastic character and Sonia’s lacklustre leadership. A top Congressman told me that neither his party nor he had any political future. Yet, within months, Sonia came to power, and the Congressman became a cabinet minister! Once again, the utter unpredictability of elections trumped opinion polls.
Why did the BJP lose? Despite its “Shining India” campaign, six years of BJP rule yielded hardly 5.8% GDP growth per year, against the 7.5% achieved in 1994-97. The Vajpayee era suffered from the Asian Financial Crisis, the dotcom bust, the 2001 recession, and two droughts. Only in Vajpayee’s final year did economic growth boom, aided by a good monsoon following a drought. But overall, economic growth and job creation was weak.
Anti-incumbency was rife. Three quarters of all incumbents lost state elections in that era. That anti-incumbency — plus political mistakes, like Vajpayee dumping the DMK in favour of the AIADMK — allowed Sonia to sneak in to win in 2004. This victory owed nothing to her abilities or acumen, and everything to anti-incumbency and BJP errors.
Rahul can hope that these two factors will one day help Congress return to power. Many elections are lost by incumbents rather than won by challengers. With the passage of time, memories of Congress scams will fade, anti-incumbency will rise, and the other side may make mistakes.
None of this means that Rahul will win in 2019. Remember, Sonia lost twice before winning in 2004. Rahul too may have to wait, maybe for years. But he cannot be written off, as some are doing.
State election results for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will be announced tomorrow. Exit polls show the BJP retaining Gujarat and wresting Himachal Pradesh. Rahul’s tactic of allying with a new bunch of BJP opponents (Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani) does not seem to have worked. Now, exit polls are often wrong, sometimes grossly so. Exit polls had predicted victory for Vajpayee in 2004, a real bloomer. Congressmen will hope for something similar in Gujarat. They will probably be disappointed.
Yet Modi is not invulnerable. He was thrashed in the state elections in Delhi and Bihar, states he had swept in the 2004 general election. He may win in Gujarat, but could lose next year’s state elections in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
The greatest risk for the BJP is not that it will lose some states, but that it will win so many that it slips into the arrogant over-confidence of Vajpayee’s “Shining India” campaign in 2004. That error enabled Sonia to win despite Vajpayee’s high popularity. Rahul can hope that, one day, BJP arrogance will provide him another opening.