The Supreme Court of India’s decision to overturn Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification has breathed new life into his role as a member of the Lok Sabha, rekindling political dynamics in India. Soon upon his return, Rahul Gandhi featured as the star speaker for the recently formed I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) during the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, pitting him directly against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While it is still being debated who took the honors in the Parliament – Rahul Gandhi, Amit Shah, or Modi – by far the Congress MP is the only leader in the opposition capable of creating a buzz in the media, whether on the legacy platforms or on social media.
So what does his return to the Parliament mean for the Congress party, the grand opposition alliance, and arch rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Claiming the martyr tag
Rahul now has the opportunity to portray himself as a martyr, accusing the BJP of orchestrating his disqualification through a party leader who approached courts in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Had the highest court not come to his rescue, Rahul may have been barred from contesting elections in 2024, and he could use this to claim that it was being done to stop him from directly challenging Modi in the upcoming general elections.
Elections are a lot about who wins the perception battle and Rahul could position himself as a target of the BJP’s efforts to hinder opposition leaders. This narrative could resonate with voters, underscoring the BJP’s alleged fear of his influence in the upcoming general elections.
Some of the strictures of the Supreme Court can be used by Rahul and the Congress to bring home their point.
Strengthening Congress bench
While the Congress boasts skilled speakers like Mallikarjun Kharge, P. Chidambaram, and Jairam Ramesh in the Rajya Sabha, it lacks a robust presence in the Lok Sabha. Leader of Opposition Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary struggles to converse in Hindi and Sonia Gandhi is suffering from health issues. While Shashi Tharoor, Gaurav Gogoi, and Manish Tewari are good speakers, Rahul’s charisma and media appeal contribute substantially to the Congress bench’s strength in the lower house.
Challenger to Modi
Rahul’s return also fills the leadership void within the Congress party, particularly in comparison to Modi. With elections becoming increasingly personality-driven, having a prominent face is essential.
While Mallikarjun Kharge has been appointed as the Congress president and is handling the organizational responsibilities well, the party lacked a charismatic leader to take on Narendra Modi in 2024. Whether officially announced as the prime ministerial candidate or not, Rahul’s resurgence addresses this necessity, aligning with the party’s strategic positioning.
In an Axis My India-India Today exit poll carried out in May 2019, 37% of respondents said they voted on the basis of the PM face; hence, leadership is crucial, and Rahul’s return plugs this gap for the grand old party.
Rahul’s return bolsters the opposition alliance – INDIA, offering not only added strength but also a potential leadership claim. As the alliance’s most popular figure, Rahul can potentially position the Congress party as its fulcrum and assert leadership within the coalition.
Rahul Gandhi is the most popular opposition leader and enjoys a pan-India appeal vis-a-vis other opposition leaders. With a 34% approval rating, more than three times his nearest rival, Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi is best placed to challenge Narendra Modi.
The post-BJY Boost
Rahul has re-invented himself through public connect programs such as Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) and his regular meetings with the working-class people. His popularity post-BJY has increased immensely,as per a CSDS survey. According to the survey, held in May, 26% of respondents said they had “always liked him” while 15% said they started doing so only after the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
His return also boosts the Congress’s confidence before the launch of the second phase of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Overconfidence trap for BJP?
The BJP’s strategists and supporters believe that they have leverage in a Modi versus Rahul contest in 2024. They feel Rahul is no match for Modi in a presidential-style contest. The numbers support their confidence, as Modi is the PM choice for 43% of the voters while Rahul is for only 27%, according to a recent CSDS survey.
However, the gap between their popularity is now narrowing. Rahul’s popularity has almost doubled since 2014 (from 14% in 2014 to 27% in 2023). Modi enjoyed a lead of 21% in 2019 which is now reduced to 16%, as per the survey.
The BJP should exercise caution, and understand that there is a thin line between confidence and overconfidence. The BJP’s overconfidence proved fatal in 2004 when the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was handed a shocking defeat.
The BJP’s constant barbs and attacks on Rahul could actually make him stronger and help him gain sympathy. Modi grew stronger during 2002-14 when Congress targeted him for failing to protect lives during the Gujarat riots and unleashed a CBI inquiry. The same could apply to Rahul as well.
Defining Rahul’s role
As Rahul shoulders various responsibilities for the Congress – key speaker in Parliament, star campaigner, and ideological figurehead – there’s a growing dependence on him within the party. While Mallikarjun Kharge’s appointment alleviates some organizational burdens, Rahul’s contribution remains vital.
The stay on his disqualification as MP has provided a boost to the Congress party ahead of the five state polls (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Telangana) and the general election next year. However, Congress needs to define Rahul’s role clearly, so that his skills are best utilized.
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