OPN Rahul Gandhi RAIPUR
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at the Congress' 85th Plenary session in Raipur on Saturday Image Credit: ANI

India will have a 2019 redux in 2024 as Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, will be the party’s face for the country’s general elections.

Gandhi will lead the charge and he has decreed that the party will fight the elections on an anti-crony capitalism platform, showcasing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s links with Gautam Adani, the beleaguered billionaire.

This was the essence of 85th plenary session of the Congress party in Raipur held last week. Speaker after speaker competed to read encomiums to Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and almost all attacked Adani. It appeared that the Bharat Jodo Yatra was the flavour of meet, as India's Grand Old Party rallied around Rahul.

Rahul Gandhi Bharat Jodo Yatra
The Bharat Jodo Yatra began on September 7, 2022, from Kanyakumari and passed through 12 states, culminating in Jammu and Kashmir Image Credit: Gulf News

The Gandhi scion, wearing his twin hats of the chief ideologue of the party and its candidate for prime minister, tore in to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on cronyism and what he described as “cowardice” on Chinese aggression.

Looking at 100+ seats in Parliament

I spoke to a cross section of Congress leaders for this SWAT analysis. All of them were clear the party had to cross triple digits in the next Lok Sabha elections or it would implode as a party. Clearly the Congress does not do very well out of power, fancying itself a party of government.

A senior leader said, “we have unquestionably stood by the Gandhi family even after losing power in two terms. If we fail this time, then loyalty to the Gandhi family will remain but the Congress party won’t. India will also be a changed country with a complete dilution of secularism and minority rights.

Whether the Constitution is rewritten to reflect this does not matter. A generation of youth will have grown up seeing only the BJP in power and will reflect those values”.

It would be an understatement to say that the Congress leadersship is worried. The stress test that an election is - would for all practical purposes be the last throw of dice for the party.

OPN Rahul Gandhi RAIPUR
Gandhi’s personal brand stock has actually gone up after his gruelling walkathon

Some senior leaders chafe at Gandhi’s laser focus on Adani and say that a similar campaign against Anil Ambani and the Rafale deal with the slogan “chowkidar chor hai” flopped spectacularly in 2019. Received political takeaway is that personal attacks against popular leaders don’t work in Indian politics.

Leaders also question the wisdom of just attacking the government in a negative campaign on cronyism because voters seek alternatives, wanting an answer to what will you do to benefit us if we vote for you.

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India's demographic dividend

Stock market valuation scams may be too esoteric to have resonance with the average voter. They seek leadership plans on bread and butter issues such as bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads and water) and the real elephant stomping around voters: the spectacular lack of job creation — virtually a lost decade of employment generation which may just change the Indian demographic dividend in to a nightmare.

Says a young Congress leader from a heartland state, “every time I talk to the youth in my constituency and my state I see them solely focused on employment and seeking jobs. Then I talk to my political colleagues across party lines and this is not even mentioned.”

I saw a clear divide on issues between the Congress leaders who fight elections and the ones who are the Rajya Sabha (RS) courtier types.

The ones who need to be re-elected want employment and inflation to top the issues the Congress highlights and battles on, while the RS types are content to flatter Gandhi and his strategy.

Will Gandhi finally succeed?

Once upon a time the Congress was a mainstream party which reflected the issues that bothered the voters. You could say it was all things to all people.

With Gandhi’s leadership, the party risks the danger of taking up fringe issues that don’t really enthuse the voter. India has changed. It has no resentment for billionaires. It simply admires them and wants to be as rich.

If you highlight unemployment and offer solutions you will strike a chord with the voter. Simply name calling is unlikely to work.

Gandhi’s personal brand stock has actually gone up after his gruelling walkathon. He can’t be dismissed as a lightweight anymore but, he now has to keep the momentum going for the next 300 days.

Gandhi has proved that he is extremely resilient and undaunted by big defeats. Will he finally see success?

Watch this space.