Opinion: Rahul Gandhi’s Learning Curve

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Has the Congress given up on North India to invest its political capital in reinventing itself as a South-first party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi? I would argue that it has.

As the oldest pan-Indian party with a full footprint across the country and 20 percent of the vote share, the Congress is vehement about being the only national Opposition that can take on a thriving BJP under Narendra Modi. Consider the following: 

  • Mallikarjun Kharge, the new Congress president is from Karnataka.
  • Rahul Gandhi with his outsize influence in the party is Member of parliament from Wayanad in Kerala.
  • K C Venugopal, currently the party official with the maximum influence on Rahul Gandhi, is from Kerala.
  • The losing candidate for party President, Shashi Tharoor, is serving his third term as MP from Thiruvananthapuram.
  • Rahul Gandhi, looking at yet another reinvention of his political brand, is currently on a Bharat Jodo Yatra. The walkathon started from Tamil Nadu, spent a long time in the state, and is currently in Karnataka. Rahul Gandhi is carefully skirting the election-bound states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. 
  • If Kharge continues as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha along with his new job, the Congress leaders in both Houses of parliament will not be from the North. Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is from West Bengal.
  • Jairam Ramesh, the newly-appointed General Secretary in charge of the all-important Communications department, is from Karnataka.
  • Srinivas BV, National President of the Indian Youth Congress, is also from the South.

For this column, I spoke to senior Congress leader and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who comes from Tamil Nadu. He made two points: the Padayatra will spend 50-55 days in southern states. The rest, amounting to about 100 days, will traverse northern states. I asked him if the Congress party has more or less checked out of the north to focus on Southern comfort. Chidambaram obviously disagreed and said only a few office-bearers were from the South.

MK Stalin, Rahul Gandhi and KC Venugopal

The shrunken Congress has governments only in two states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It has suffered a total wipeout in the North of India with its vote share coming down to a paltry two percent in the all- important state of Uttar Pradesh which elects 80 Lok Sabha MPs. In the UP election in March, which was helmed by Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress collapsed. Rahul Gandhi lost the family bastion of Amethi in the 2019 general election and currently, the Congress has just one MP from UP, Sonia Gandhi (from Rae Bareilly). The last time the Congress had any traction in UP was in the 2009 general election, when it won 21 of the 80 seats. After that, the Gandhi family has been spurned by voters there, with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi separately having tried their luck both in alliance with regional heavies and without.

Like any political party, the Congress is wary of a regional or a caste imbalance among office-bearers so the currently South-heavy tilt of the party is upsetting the few leaders it has in the North (a long list has exited the party for greener pastures). “This would never have happened in Mrs Gandhi’s time or even Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure,” said a senior Congress leader who asked not to be named. “They were extremely careful in balancing competing regions and castes. If Rahul and Priyanka don’t know (this), their managers should make them understand the message you are sending the voters in the North that you have no one representing them in your organisation and you don’t particularly care for their interests or the all-important votes. Kharge should let a leader from the north be Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha”. The post could be given, according to party chatter, to Digvijaya Singh, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, in a deliberate balancing act.

The hyper-dominance of the BJP in North India, particularly in UP, seems to have provoked the Congress into trying to find its pulse in the South. But this could backfire. UP has 80 seats, Maharashtra has 48, and Bihar holds 40 seats. The Congress has reduced itself to a junior partner in Maharashtra and Bihar. As discussed above, UP has expunged it for now. In Tamil Nadu, the party has 8 of a total of 39 seats, making it a very a very junior ally to Chief Minister M K Stalin. P Chidambaram said that the party’s equation with M K Stalin is good and cordial and he would ally with the Congress in 2024.

But can you have a shot at the centre as a junior partner? The Congress needs to work out an answer. The party keeps blaming the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for hoovering up its vote share in states where it is in a direct contest with the BJP but it is the Congress’ own falling stock that has turned it into a junior partner to all allies and regional parties. In states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which vote soon, it’s not even trying to fight the BJP. AAP is simply stepping in to the vacuum created by the absent Congress. 

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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