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November 10, 2017



Can Rahul stop the Modi juggernaut?

What’s Rahul Gandhi having these days for breakfast? The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been on a roll after having discovered his ‘mojo’.

His stinging attacks on Narendra Modi over issues like the catastrophic demonetisation and the stillborn goods and services tax (GST) have the BJP running for cover.

Rahul Gandhi’s performance in Gujarat, Modi’s home turf, has been simply breathtaking, attracting huge crowds for a change. He has been mobbed wherever he goes in the poll-bound state, with the public eagerly lapping up his clever one-liners and no-holds-barred attacks on the government’s disastrous performance on various fronts.

It may not amount to much, but is certainly a sign of the shifting popular mood that, for the first time, the Congress leader has surged ahead of Modi in terms of Twitter retweets and talking points generated on social media. Not a small feat for someone who, unlike the media-savvy Modi, discovered the power of social media rather late in the day – in 2015.

Gone is the image of the soft-spoken, shy rookie weighed down by the legacy that he has inherited and who would rather be somewhere else than face the bloodthirsty hounds of an increasingly cocky BJP in and outside parliament.

You couldn’t blame him either given the steep fall that the Congress, haunted by a series of scams and electoral defeats, has been staring at for some time. Indeed, the second term of former prime minister Manmohan Singh had been largely dedicated to firefighting on this front, with the party being perpetually on the defensive. Perhaps this is why the not-so-young Gandhi has yet to take control of the party despite the deteriorating health of Sonia Gandhi.

Many of the Congress’ old guard, including his mother, seemed to believe that he is far from ready in the face of growing expectations and demands of the party faithfuls to pass the baton to the next generation. The fact that Rahul has had an uncanny habit of disappearing right in the middle of crucial electoral battles and has far from delivered in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, has not helped his case. However, that is changing.

For the first time, the BJP government and the vast and committed propagandist machinery of the Parivar and the corporate media that supports it, is beginning to look rather unsure of itself. As loyal Modi supporter Tavleen Singh has acknowledged, the façade of invincibility has cracked.

The old warhorse that is Modi looks so jaded and jarringly repetitive as he peddles the same old claims about his government’s lofty “achievements”. So much so that his characteristic ‘mitr’ (friends) have become a butt of jokes among stand-up comedians.

This even as the economy has been steadily declining with jobs increasingly difficult to come by in a predominantly young country. Farmers have been killing themselves in their thousands as rural distress spreads. This is a country where agriculture remains the main and largest source of livelihood.

And its not just the farmers and rural areas that have been finding the going tough. Even the business community and the urban middle classes – the core supporters of the BJP – have not been too happy with the way things have unfolded over the past couple of years.

In a state like Gujarat, known for its powerful mercantile community and dedicated supporter of the party, popular discontent is deepening. The ground is shifting from under the BJP’s feet. It could lead to further disillusionment with the party that has been bursting with hubris over its electoral successes in states like the UP ahead of the 2019 elections. With Modi’s slogans like ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (the Congress-free India), the BJP’s pompous sense of entitlement may yet prove its undoing.

The saffron party could still win the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, given its dedicated organisational presence and massive electoral campaign. Also, its loyal Hindu vote bank is unlikely to desert it so soon. Yet, it is undeniable that the BJP is beginning to look vulnerable and is far from invincible.

It may find the going particularly tough in 2019. However, it could still win the re-election battle largely because the opposition remains weak and divided with opportunists like Nitish Kumar, once portrayed as a challenger to Modi, jumping the ship midstream to go and sit in the lap of his imagined rival.

The only party that is still capable of offering a credible alternative is the Congress. For all its flaws and sins, it remains the only party that has a truly national presence and can claim to represent all communities and states. After all, it led the movement for India’s independence under stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad and governed the country for nearly six decades. It used to be India’s natural party of governance. Today, this distinction has been claimed by the BJP despite all that it has been done over the years to undermine and divide the country in the name of religion and nationalism.

However, the Congress is guilty of willingly surrendering and ceding its pre-eminence in Indian politics by trying to act like the B team of the BJP and trying to mean all things to all people.

When you start playing the game of soft Hindutva – as Indira Gandhi often did and Rahul’s late father Rajiv Gandhi did over the Babri Masjid – why shouldn’t the electorate go for the original proponents of the ideology?

Today, if India is not guided by the worldview of Gandhi but by the dogma of his killers with the BJP lawmakers openly cheering for Nathuram Godse and the Congress has been reduced to a double-digit figure in parliament – its worst performance since Independence – the party has no one to blame but itself.

More disturbing is the total saffronisation of all arms and facets of the Indian establishment or the deep state. From the legislature, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the armed forces to the police and the media, Hindutva truly rules India today in every sense of the word. Even if the Congress or any other party defeats the BJP in 2019 or 2024, it would not be easy to deal with the ideology of hate that brought it into power.

Yet, the Congress cannot afford to give up or give in. Neither can the reasonable majority of the country that still believes in an inclusive, progressive and representative democracy – as imagined by the founding fathers of the republic.

It may still not be too late to revive the grand old party and rediscover its mojo – just as Rahul has discovered his own. The Congress needs to start working with all secular and democratic forces in the country and rally the nation once again for the goal of building a healthy, progressive and inclusive democracy – as envisioned by India’s liberal constitution and its farsighted architects. It can still win back India provided it believes in itself and sincerely works for the original ideal of India – the ideal of a secular and democratic nation that represents all segments of society.

The writer is an award-winning journalist.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com