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How Rahul Gandhi is fast emerging as the big challenger to Narendra Modi

It’s going to be Modi versus Rahul political battle in coming years; Cong’s performance in future elections hinges on Rahul’s performance as the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha

How Rahul Gandhi is fast emerging as the big challenger to Narendra Modi

The bottom line is that in the recent polls, Congress has won most of its Lok Sabha seats with the support of its allies. For, the grand old party has fared poorly in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh where it is in power on its own. That means Congress has a long way to go before it can ride to power at the Centre.

In a recent column, I had underlined the need for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to transform himself into a statesman for the benefit of the country, himself and his party. Despite a significant fall in Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally in the Lok Sabha to below majority mark in the 2024 General Elections, he became the country’s Prime Minister for the third consecutive term; a rare milestone earlier achieved only by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. That way, it was a historic mandate for Modi despite his uncalled for rhetoric on minorities, especially Muslims. More importantly, this mandate came in favour of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) even though the Indian National Congress (INC) promised a plethora of freebies, including a lucrative Rs one lakh-a-year to poor women.

But BJP and with it the NDA, will lose miserably in 2029 elections if Modi fails to take all sections of society along for the overall development of the country. The first signs of such an eventuality were already visible in the 2024 General Elections. It is up to Modi and his core political team to reverse that trend or perish.

Nevertheless, for the past one decade, Modi topped the popularity charts of political leaders in the country. But Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Pandit Nehru, seems to be fast emerging as the big challenger to Modi.

So, let me focus this time on Rahul Gandhi, the newly-anointed Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha.

I first wrote about Rahul Gandhi in my BizyLife column nearly six years ago in August 2018. He was the Congress president then. In those days, he used to be more philosophical and idealistic which, I had mentioned, would take Congress nowhere. I also said Congress was in need of a leader who could ‘see’ political mileage in every opportunity.

As expected, Congress under the leadership of Rahul fared miserably in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and failed to get even the Opposition status in Lok Sabha even though it increased its tally from the historic low of 44 seats in 2014 to 52 seats five years later. So, the Modi versus Rahul battle in the 2019 polls turned out to be a big disaster for Congress.

That defeat was so huge and debilitating that Congress and its leaders were reluctant to project him as a rival to Modi till recently. This was also the case with Congress even during the 2024 elections though some of its leaders like Telangana Chief Minister Anumula Revanth Reddy publicly announced their goal to make Rahul Gandhi the country’s Prime Minister.

On his part, Rahul Gandhi did the right thing by resigning as the Congress president after the 2019 debacle. That way, he owned up the defeat on moral grounds. It is a fact that the Nehru-Gandhi family acts as glue that keeps the Congress intact. On that count, resignation from a member of that family is a rare thing. Thus, Rahul’s resignation as the party president enhanced his image though Congress suffered defeats in many elections after the 2019 loss.

His Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 4,080-kilometre walkathon from Kanyakumari, India’s southern tip, to Jammu & Kashmir, the county’s frontiers in the north, transformed him into a political leader with multiple streaks of confidence. He took up this walkathon across 12 States and two union territories from September 7, 2022 to January 30, 2023.

His subsequent Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from Manipur to Mumbai between January 14 and March 16, 2024, also enhanced his political image besides helping Congress in some States. Though Congress lost the Assembly elections in three key States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in the run up to the 2024 General Elections despite Rahul’s first yatra, it did notch up victories in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana.

Further, Congress vastly improved its performance in the 2024 polls by increasing its tally to 99 Lok Sabha seats from 52 in 2019. Together with its allies, it posed a challenge to BJP’s dominance in the decisive States of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. It exceeded expectations in Rajasthan too.

Of course, Congress did not form the government at the Centre as I.N.D.I.A bloc, the opposition alliance of which it is a major partner, could manage only 234 seats. But Congress, with its enhanced performance, has showcased to the world that it is still in race to capture power at the Centre.

For his part, Rahul Gandhi won from both the Lok Sabha seats he contested from, in the recent elections. In his family pocketborough Rae Bareli, he won with a bigger majority than Modi’s margin in Varanasi in the same State. That’s another positive takeaway for the Congress leader.

But the bottom line is that in the recent polls, the grand old party (GOP) has won most of its seats with the support of its allies. For, Congress has fared poorly in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh where it is in power on its own. That means that the party has a long way to go before it can ride to power at the Centre. It has to significantly improve its performance wherever it directly takes on the BJP.

With Rahul Gandhi accepting the constitutional position as the Leader of the Opposition in the 18th Lok Sabha, it’s again going to be a Modi versus Rahul political battle inside the Parliament and outside of it in the coming years. Therefore, Congress’ performance in future elections will hinge on Rahul’s performance as the Leader of Opposition in the current Lok Sabha. Further, if he really wishes to become the Prime Minister, Rahul should not make any attempt from his side to topple the current NDA government. Furthermore, he should not be seen doing that. That will backfire. He should also refrain from taking on corporate houses.

That’s a retrograde political strategy at a time when India is aiming for a Viksit Bharat. Moreover, unbridled freebies may not bring victory to Congress at the national level as India’s growing middle class is increasingly turning against such practices. Instead, he should come out with his own development agenda for the country.

But one thing is certain. Rahul Gandhi, with his aggressive tactics these days, has ample chances of becoming a worthy rival to Modi. And BJP and its three-time Prime Minister cannot take the Gandhi scion for granted anymore!

P Madhusudhan Reddy
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