With Prashant Kishor meeting the Gandhis, will we finally know where the Opposition is headed?

And if Kishor is forging a united Opposition ahead of 2024, what role will Rahul Gandhi play?

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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Election strategist Prashant Kishor or PK has invited a lot of giddy media coverage ever since he met the Gandhi siblings a few days ago. It was his fourth meeting but this time, it was publicised for blitz effect. And it worked, and how!

There were stories on whether Kishor was mending an imminent Punjab split with chief minister Amarinder Singh pitted against former cricketer and BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu, as he is also helping the former for the forthcoming Punjab assembly poll. Other stories ranged from him working for the Congress in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly poll; to getting Opposition unity and endorsement for Sharad Pawar’s candidature as president of India; to fantasist speculation that he would join the Congress party; even that he was forging a united Opposition grouping for the 2024 general election to take on prime minister Narendra Modi and his NDA government.

For starters, the Punjab imbroglio is still in knots and it’s in the hands of Congress president Sonia Gandhi to resolve the issue. Amarinder Singh has said so himself and even threatened that any offer to Sidhu as state party president – he has just been appointed – will lead to a split. So, that leaves Kishor with hardly any choices.

Will Kishor want to test the Congress yet again in the coming UP election when there’s hardly eight or nine months left to go, where the party is completely mauled and left with no organisation? Kishor has privately said that the last UP election in 2017 – when he was hired by the Congress to strategise for the party – was a giant blot on his poll strategy career. At the time, everything had bombed, from the “UP ke ladke” campaign of Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav to even declaring the late Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit as chief minister candidate. The Congress finally won a dismal seven seats, down from its earlier tally of 24. It seems unlikely that Kishore will want to burn his fingers once again in 2022, with the prospects of a flaming and bruising Hindutva communally polarised campaign ahead under present chief minister Adityanath.

As for whipping up a consensus among Opposition parties for the candidature of Pawar as president in 2022: the BJP-led NDA may not have the requisite numbers and the Opposition could make a show of strength by putting up its own candidate and defeating the Modi government. But this has been put to rest with Pawar himself declaring he has no intention of becoming president.

Then, does it make sense for Kishor to join the Congress and lose his independence and autonomy? Yes, if he has to work for the Congress, he will face derision from party leaders as he learnt in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab last time. He has even complained about it. But becoming a party member keeps him out of bounds for other political parties which he would not like to give up.

So, that leaves Kishor with his grand plans for Opposition unity against the Modi-Shah election juggernaut for 2024, and that seems to be the plausible reason for meeting the Gandhis last week. And why could this be true? Because the secretive and discreet Gandhis would not have had it let known that they were open to talks if they were not dead serious about reviving the party.

Desperate times need desperate measures.

Perhaps the first hint came – that there can be no Opposition unity without the Congress – after a lacklustre meeting last month of the Rashtriya Manch, a group of leaders opposed to the BJP. It was set up by Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP member and current TMC member, at Pawar’s house. During the meeting, they realised there can be no coherent Opposition without the Congress.

Both Kishor and Pawar have said there can be no anti-BJP alliance without the Congress because of its national presence, and that a third front model is “archaic” and can never challenge the RSS-BJP, as Kishor told a news channel.

So, what is the plan ahead?

Let’s leave the burning question for last: will Rahul Gandhi then lead this broad Opposition alliance?

But for starters, what’s on the agenda today? First, all plans to start a non-Congress, even a non-Gandhi Congress party, have been shelved. After all, it is senseless to create a new party when there’s a pan-India party like the Congress with a national footprint on the map. So, after spending days and hours looking for a “winning matrix”, as sources close to Kishor reveal, it was agreed that it is easier to revitalise the Congress – a party which is a national asset, and may be comatose and literally at death’s door today, but it’s speedier to rejuvenate, renew and breathe new life into the party than start afresh with a new party.

Now, this is easier said than done. Even Rahul Gandhi has tried to kickstart the organisation, though his attempts have been in fits and starts. But there is now going to be a calculated, purposeful, and thought-out blueprint for the revival of the Congress party organisation, bottom up.

It will be multi-pronged, from making basic structural changes in the organisation, like the urgently and constantly renewed call for a complete overhaul of the CWC and restructuring it with members who are duly elected rather than appointed by consensus. As senior leader Salman Khurshid had said soon after Rahul Gandhi quit the party president’s post after the party’s debacle in the 2019 general election, there was no smooth ascension of a newly elected president, even for an interim candidate, until an election was held. There was no one in the hierarchy who could call a meeting to take stock of the situation and whip up demands for electing a president or, for that matter, even analyse the reasons for the party’s abysmal defeat in the election.

Instead, the party returned to its old cry – “Bring back Sonia” – and she took up the post, not necessarily grudgingly although she said it would only be temporary. Two years later, Sonia is still the interim president with no signs of an election on the horizon.

For the last many years, the Congress motto has been, “Keep calm, this too shall pass.” It is scandalous that all thorny issues that have afflicted the party have been resolved by a policy of drift. In fact, Sonia Gandhi is the queen of status quoist policy, allowing for a problem to tide over without any intervention. In the face of an aggressive, ambitious fireball of a party like the BJP and its ideologically-yearning Sangh fountainhead, the RSS, and its thousand Hydra-headed Hindutva groups, the Congress’s policy drift can never be a challenge to its main rival.

As one keen political pundit close to Kishor said, “Look at the talent languishing in the party, those who have genuinely and tirelessly worked for the organisation and are sincerely committed to the party ideology, not those political dynastic upstarts who believe in their entitlement and have left the Congress for lucrative deals. Why can’t the organisation be able to absorb them and energise the organisation in the states?”

It’s the ultimate key for a new awakening and resurrection – to reward loyal, committed workers who have a stake in the Congress’s survival – as important as their commitment to its ideology, which we will come to later, and rework the top-down approach of dodgy central leaders in charge of state affairs. As the pundit explained, “The Congress has perfected the art of losing a winning election.”

The pundit went on to cite the double-dealing leaders, whether in Goa, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh. The Congress had decidedly won all three elections but their governments were brought down. In Madhya Pradesh, there was factional fighting between elected chief minister Kamal Nath and his main rival Jyotiraditya Scindia. In Goa, shifty central leaders were to blame, as Digvijaya Singh was parachuted to the coastal state but twiddled his thumbs even as the BJP stole several MLAs from right under his nose. In Karnataka, it was plain old double-dealing where MLAs shifted to the BJP to bring down their own government.

There are several other states where Congress governments were brought down by illegal and unfair means, and the focus will now be to change this bargain basement electoral democracy and instead “build an organisation that is able to sustain its victory”, as the pundit explained.

The other crucial areas of focus would be to look at the party’s media policy. And a natural tie-in with this would be: what does the Congress stand for?

Congress workers from top to bottom will have to be clear about the party’s singular ideology and, according to sources, it has been decided that the focus will be the idea of India of the founding fathers of the republic. Ever since the RSS-BJP came to power, there has been no counter-narrative to challenge the Sangh’s Hindutva – a political ideology of the 1930s that is easily and erroneously confused with Hinduism and its 4,000-year-old history of civilisation.

The new challenge will be to counter the Sangh’s idea of a monolithic, authoritarian militaristic Hindutva state with the original idea of a modern, pluralistic, secular, inclusive democratic republic where ideas, cultures, peoples and ideologies flow side by side without hatred, animosity, and fear. There will be no more fudging, confusion and fog and instead, party cadres will, in unison, challenge the Sangh ideology from the streets to television studios. The party is gearing up for a massive membership drive at the grassroots, a massive clean-up of the party of dodgy leaders. A complete rehaul of the organisation is in the offing.

Rahul Gandhi has already begun the work. Two days ago, he asked all the RSS people in the Congress to leave the party and join the RSS, including those who were afraid of the RSS.

The Gandhi-Kishor plan may be exuberant but do the electoral numbers stack up? After all, prime minister Modi is still on top of the leadership sweepstakes, and while his ratings may have taken a beating, he has always emerged a winner, what with a national media that blots out all his missteps and failures; Modi’s non-performance and downright wreckage is hardly publicised, from the economy to Covid management.

Also, the RSS-BJP is here to stay. And though Modi is the first non-Congress prime minister to lead a party in Parliament with an absolute majority, the party’s vote percentage does not reflect this stunning trend. And this is what the Gandhi-Kishor team is relying upon. In 2014, the BJP polled barely 31 percent but got a whopping 282 seats; in 2019, the BJP got 37.4 percent of the votes polled, just 6.4 per cent more, but won a bonanza of 303 seats. The last time a party got 283 seats was in 1967, but the Congress had to poll 40.8 percent to reach this figure.

In 2014, was it really a Modi wave that brought him to power? Or was it a fractured polity that gave the BJP 282 seats? For instance, the Congress got 19.3 percent of the vote share but only got 44 seats, whereas the BJP – which got an even smaller vote share in 2009 – with 18.5 percent notched up 116 seats.

In the jackpot state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won eight seats in 2019, with narrow margins as low as 181 votes in Machhlishahr when its candidate defeated the BSP. And this could have been a major setback for the BJP as its tally would have come down to 54 seats. It was none other than the Congress which cost the BSP-SP-RLD alliance 10 seats when it cut into the alliance’s votes and gave the BJP an advantage. The numbers are clear to see: a fractured Opposition vote is a disadvantage, and the Kishor-Gandhi partnership is getting its maths right in every state.

The other spectacular advantage the BJP has is that it is directly pitted against the Congress in 186 seats, as was seen in the 2019 poll, and the BJP’s strike rate is a stunning 90 percent and more. It won 162 seats in the contest, leaving the Congress breathless with just 15 seats. For instance, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress – which had won the state elections barely a few months before – shockingly got only two out of 65 seats from the three states. In Gujarat and Maharashtra too, the BJP swept the Congress out where it was in a direct contest, the latter got zero in Gujarat and two in Maharashtra.

The plan is straightforward: aim to win at least a 100 for the Congress here and the BJP is out of power.

And finally, the burning question: will Rahul Gandhi then lead this broad Opposition alliance? Or, if you look at it another way, does Rahul Gandhi want to take on the mantle as leader of the alliance? By all counts, it seems a big no. Consider this: ever since 2004, when Sonia Gandhi led the party to a stunning victory, Rahul Gandhi has evaded taking up a post when he had it for the asking – whether a ministry or party post, not even as a leader or member of a parliamentary committee. For 10 years, till 2014, until the Congress-led UPA government was defeated by Modi, Rahul has been conducting himself as if he’s on a gap year, except that it lasted a decade.

For the Congress heir today, gone tomorrow, power is poison, as he himself said in Jaipur at the party conclave in 2013, when he was foisted the position of party vice-president. But there was an interesting caveat when he underlined that the Congress is the symbol of hope, and now his life and so are the people of India to him, and he would fight for both with everything he has. It’s pretty clear now that Rahul Gandhi is here to stay, but he is clearly not willing to want power for the sake of power.

For if there’s anything that signifies true blue entitlement, it is that power should be handed over to Rahul Gandhi, something he and his family have always been granted unquestioningly, never for the asking, as they say. It is also the reason why an impetuous Rahul threw away the presidency after the party’s humiliating defeat in the 2019 general election, without responsibility or obligation to his party or colleagues. He refused to take the position of leader of Opposition too in Parliament and he is not a member of any parliamentary committee.

The message is clear. Rahul Gandhi wants to be like “mummy” Sonia, steer the party with the right ideological credo but without post or position, to be free and without the burden of governance and administration. For the Opposition parties too, Rahul Gandhi is not the plan nor has he been factored in. A face to take on Modi’s BJP will emerge when the Opposition is being built; Rahul will continue to be the face of the Congress Party.

In the final sweepstakes post-election, if Rahul has earned the leadership mantle, it will be his, but it’s certainly not his before. The hunt is on.

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