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Rahul Gandhi Has Proven His Leadership, But Is that Enough to Defeat Modi in 2019?

Modi and his Hindutva forces will try their favorite formula of electoral gains through religious polarisation.

Rahul Gandhi comes from arguably the most illustrious political family of the world, but he has been India’s most underrated politician since he joined active politics in 2004. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its social media employees have run a powerful and extended campaign to project him as a political greenhorn. Prime Minister Narendra Modi regularly ridicules him in public meetings. Indian media and political commentators often propagate the rookie image of Rahul Gandhi assiduously thrust upon him by his Right-wing political opponents. The massive defeat of the Congress Party in 2014 general election and the series of losses in state elections under his leadership also perpetuated that image of a political novice who does not have the interest nor the acumen to bring back the Congress Party to power.

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No one can, however, deny the fact that Rahul Gandhi led the fight from the front in the December 2017 election and left Modi-Shah election machine panic-stricken in its home citadel, Gujarat. He also waged a spirited fight in Karnataka state assembly election in May 2018. In both these two states elections, even though he exhibited political acumen and tenacity, he was unable to score clean victories against Modi’s BJP. However, the elections in these two states made sure that his political opponents and political commentators could no longer reject his potential outright, even if they are reluctant to see him as a real challenger for Modi in 2019 general election. But, the spectacular success of the Congress Party in this week in snatching back the power of three Hindi heartland states from the BJP has given a complete makeover to Rahul Gandhi’s image. A week is a very long time in Indian politics and this week was certainly a landmark one for Rahul Gandhi’s political life.

Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi
Congress president Rahul Gandhi

The importance of the Congress Party’s victory over the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh is extremely significant in many ways. These three states are in Hindi heartland and have been for long the political strongholds of Hindutva forces. As history suggests, the trend of these three states most likely represents the trend of the whole heartland. Thus, there is no doubt that Narendra Modi being re-elected as the Prime Minister in 2019 looks significantly more difficult at this stage. Media, both at home and abroad have been started discussing that possibility. Not only has Modi’s position suddenly become quite vulnerable, Rahul Gandhi has also forcefully emerged as a serious and capable leader in the eyes of the ever-critical media and political commentators.

One should no longer question Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

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The Modi and Shah-led BJP, however, will do all it can to win in 2019. The appointment of a pliant Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor is an indication that Modi government will go on handing out freebies throwing basic economic prudence out of the window. But, considering the all-around economic failures of the government in the last five years, these last moment handouts will not make Modi feel confident enough in retaining the power.

Modi and his Hindutva forces will try their favorite formula of electoral gains through religious polarisation. The Ram temple issue will be raked up in a big way and there will be attempts to bypass the regular judicial process, not with an intention to build the temple but to use it to provoke the minorities and create communal tension. There is also a possibility of rapid deterioration of bilateral relations with Pakistan, with increasing cross-border firing and even some cross-border military operations. The tense border situation will not only help Modi divert the attention of Indian voters from his failures in economic front but also from the Rafale Scam.

Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi

Modi and Shah will do everything to make Rahul Gandhi’s mission extremely difficult. However, it is for Rahul Gandhi to maintain his composure and keep his focus on targeting Modi on his failures like he has been doing it for some time now. Farming distress, unemployment and the rapidly unfolding Rafale Scam give Rahul Gandhi enough ammunition to put Modi on the mat. Rahul Gandhi’s frequent temple visits have made it also impossible for the BJP to paint him as anti-Hindu. At this point, it is very important for the Congress Party not go back to its comfort zone, but to remain united and work tirelessly under its leader if they want to win the election in 2019.

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It is not anymore that whether Rahul Gandhi can lead the party but now there are questions whether the Congress Party can remain united and muster its fighting spirit to win the election against Modi-Shah election machine. If the Congress Party and its national and local leaders don’t use the momentum provided by the three state election victories and go all-out under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership to dethrone Modi in the next election, there is certain possibility that they might not get another attempt to change the regime through electoral means. Rahul Gandhi has shown that he has everything in him to successfully challenge Narendra Modi, it is now for the Congress Party and its plethora of leaders to show that they still have the hunger and dedication to be back in power.

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden  

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