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CONGRESS INCHES AHEAD

Shuffling the leaders’ deck and betting on the young, Rahul Gandhi is moving to revamp the party ahead of 2019 elections

Somehow, the Congress now appears to be on a fast, brisk and neoteric run. A change of personae in the party that started alongside the Gujarat elections, catapulting Rahul Gandhi to the top, has, indeed, picked pace.

The idea behind some of the latest moves by the party is to make up for the time and space lost in the past to give the governing BJP quite a bit of an edge. And now when the countrywide general elections for next Parliament are at best only about a year away, the Grand Old Party is grappling with the palpably changed terms and mores of the battle of the hustings.

Some of these were at play during the Assembly polls in Gujarat. And the Congress could withstand the stiff Gujarat challenge posed by the BJP only because some of the new faces who joined or came to the support of the Congress through the run-up to the polls. Yet, the old lot of Congress leaders like Arjun Modhwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil lost the polls in their constituencies and Congress had to be content with putting up what was thought to be a great fight, though without actually being successful against the well-entrenched BJP, governing both the state and Centre.

The Gujarat showdown brought home the enormity of the challenge before the Congress vis-à-vis the subsequent polls for other Assemblies and also to possibly make a bid to form a government at the Centre in 2019. The message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state for the Congress cried out for a change in the party, though this was already taking place at the top as the stewardship of the party passed on to Rahul Gandhi from his mother virtually around the same time.

And eventually as Rahul got settled in his new role, some of the old guard like Janardan Dwivedi, BK Hariprasad and CP Joshi have actually been eased out of their formidable positions of being the party’s general secretaries. Some of them had the charge of important states which have now changed hands.

A few more similar changes vis-à-vis the old lot of party veterans are also expected to follow. Until the other day, Dwivedi had as important a task as looking after organisation and training, which has now gone to Ashok Gehlot and the charge of Odisha held by Hariprasad has been taken away from him.

In the new scheme of things, which is said to be the beginning of the Rahul era, Jitendra Singh, Rajeev Satav and Anugrah Narain Singh have been asked to take over the charge of Odisha, Gujarat and Uttarakhand, respectively. Singh and Satav are quite young and have not yet been appointed as general secretaries though the task being undertaken by them is normally meant for and looked after by a Congress general secretary only.

Anugrah is older than the other two incumbents. He is from Allahabad which has the distinction of being the ancestral town of the new Congress boss. Rahul has also appointed a new in-charge for Bihar by replacing CP Joshi. Now Bihar would be looked after by Gohil on behalf of the AICC.

The significance of these changes goes quite beyond Delhi, as not only Gehlot but Jitendra Singh and CP Joshi are from Rajasthan, where Assembly elections are expected to be held in a few months and in any case before the end of this year. The new roles given to the two would give a relatively free hand to Sachin Pilot, another young Congress bet, whom the party has already been trying in Rajasthan.

As for Satav, he will be more at home in Gujarat like Pilot, who was sent to Rajasthan to build the party after the Congress received one of its worst drubbings at the hands of the BJP, that won the last Assembly polls held over four years ago or so.

Clearly, the moves now being made by the Congress are backed by the presumption that the route to power at the Centre goes via the states. This is more so since Congress has lost most of the Assemblies to BJP. Now the Congress is mainly confined to Punjab and Karnataka. And polls for the latter’s Assembly are slated to be held on May 12.

Their outcome is going to test the new roadmap laid down by the party. The Congress moves are simply based on efforts to build and strengthen the organisation in the states since this is necessary to tread with steady steps towards the Centre. Thus, elections for Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan that would be held a few months after Karnataka would determine the contours of the larger battle for the 2019 general elections.

The Congress has to play upon anti-incumbency in the three BJP governed states while fighting against it in Karnataka. The last of them poses a stiff challenge for Chief Minister S Siddaramaiah. Among other things, this is so because of a few smaller parties that have decided to field their candidates from select constituencies in the state. These are Bahujan Samaj Party, Aam Aadmi Party and Communist Party of India (Marxist). The three plan to put about 20 candidates each in the fray for the 224-strong Vidhan Sabha. This may queer the pitch for the Congress in a few seats as any split of non-BJP votes would be of great help to Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah’s best bet, BS Yeddyurappa.

AAP’s hoardings and buntings have been fluttering at Bengaluru’s plush drives since a few days before the announcement of the poll date for Karnataka by the Election Commission. Amid this scenario, what is also at test is Sonia Gandhi’s bid to bring non-BJP parties to a kind of tactical understanding where the BJP is not able to scrape through because of split in votes of the parties opposing it at the Centre.

In Karnataka, this appears to be a difficult task though CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury has asked the Left sympathisers among the electorate to vote for any candidate who could defeat the BJP in constituencies that do not have any candidate from the Left. AAP leader Somnath Bharti has asked voters to go by their conscience and BSP’s boss Mayawati has formed an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular) to take on both the BJP and the Congress.

The tussle thus evolving in Karnataka can well recreate what had happened earlier in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha polls. The AAP and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had at least blurred what could have otherwise been a direct and straight contest between the BJP and Congress in a number of Assembly seats in Gujarat. More than the loss of votes for Congress, this took away some of the focus from its attack on the BJP in the state polls.

None realised the damage that this caused more than NCP boss Sharad Pawar. He made a move in Mumbai on the last Republic Day, or on January 26 this year, for forging unity among the opposition parties before the 2019 elections. Soon similar efforts followed from Sonia.

In her continuing role as the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance even after relinquishing the post of Congress president in favour of Rahul, she appears to have potential allies in most important states. In Maharashtra it is NCP; in Tamil Nadu it is M Karunanidhi’s DMK; in Bihar it is Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal; and in West Bengal, because of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Sonia’s party now led by Rahul can hope to be in a better position than the last time, when it takes on the BJP in 2019.

In sharp contrast to such rising goodwill for the Congress among most parties spread across the entire political spectrum, the BJP is of late facing the wrath of some of its allies for one reason or the other. So if politics is a game of positioning, the Congress is not doing badly and may well leave the BJP behind in the times to come.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.