India: Can Congress party under Rahul Gandhi defeat Modi?

The party under its young leader Rahul Gandhi is projecting itself as the main challenger to PM Narendra Modi in 2019.

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    Rahul Gandhi took over the reins of the party in December from his mother, Sonia Gandhi [Amit Dave/Reuters]
    Rahul Gandhi took over the reins of the party in December from his mother, Sonia Gandhi [Amit Dave/Reuters]

    India's main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has stepped up its attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in advance of general elections next year, alleging the government has failed to deliver on its promise of checking corruption and creating jobs.

    At the party's 84th plenary session that ended on Sunday, the Congress party leader Palaniappan Chidambaram said the country needed to be "rescued from the hands of incompetent economic managers".

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    The Congress party has blamed Modi government for the mismanagement of the economy with polices such as demonetisation - that sucked out more than 80 percent of India's currency a year ago, stalling India's impressive economic growth.

    A Goods and Services Tax (GST) launched last year with much fanfare has drawn resentment from the business community – traditional supporters of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

    Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Congress party's influence has shrunk dramatically. The party is now in power in just four of India's 29 states. The BJP rules in 21 states.

    Rahul Gandhi, a Gandhi family scion, took over the reins of the party in December from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who was at the helm for 19 years.

    'Fear is being generated'

    Analysts say the 133-year-old party is being energised under Rahul, who launched a scathing attack on Modi at the three-day plenary.

    "Fear is being generated across the country. Dalits are being beaten up, one community is being made to fight with another. Minorities are feeling threatened," Gandhi said at the plenary referring to rising attacks against Muslims and less-privileged-caste Hindus.

    Congress party, which ruled India for most of the seven decades after independence from British colonial rule, has seized on the defeat of Modi's party in the recent parliamentary by-elections.

    Will Rahul be able to revive the fortunes of the Congress party and defeat Modi in the next national election slated to be held in early 2019?

    Al Jazeera spoke to academics and experts to get an answer.

    Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

    All over India, there is an upsurge of protests by the subaltern classes. The peasants' long march in Maharashtra state and the by-election results in Uttar Pradesh state are manifestations.

    This is because neo-liberal economic policies have brought great hardships for the petty production economy, including agriculture.

    The Congress has nothing to offer the subaltern classes by way of a different economic policy. And even its recent [plenary] session did not have anything to say on this.

    It may still triumph electorally in states where it is the sole opposition to the BJP, but it would not emerge as a national force until it can provide an alternative vision to the subaltern classes.

    The Congress lacks the ability to change the discourse altogether from what the BJP has been projecting, to focus, for instance, on people's economic hardships, because it has no alternative economic agenda to offer to the subaltern classes.

    Rasheed Kidwai, journalist and biographer of Sonia Gandhi

    The Congress is offering itself as a viable national alternative. In Congress' assessment, Modi-led BJP in 2014 thrived on hope, promises of acceleration of the economy, jobs for youth and effective handling of terror issues linked to [neighbouring] Pakistan.

    The Congress now wants to tell voters that the country turned from bad to worse due to demonetisation; crony capitalism is on the rise, jobs for youth are on the decline and farming sector is in distress, and farmers suicide has become a stark reality. And in spite of tough words and deterioration of diplomatic ties with Pakistan, soldiers and civilians are dying in bigger numbers on the India-Pakistan border areas of Kashmir.

    Rahul, as the new chief of the Congress, is trying to sideline the old guard and usher in the youth. This is easier said than done. The grand old party is rather allergic to change. And Rahul does not want to upset intra-party power equations until 2019 general elections.

    Significantly, his mother and former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has had a rethink over her voluntary retirement plan. Both mother and son are now working in tandem to work out a broad-based anti-Modi coalition of over 20 political parties.

    Suhas Palshikar, political analyst

    There has been considerable disenchantment against the BJP government, and the opposition Congress can surely benefit from that. However, so far, there is no positive turn towards the Congress among voters nor are there signs of the Congress "winning back" any particular social constituency.

    The recent statement of Sonia Gandhi referring to the anti-Hindu image of Congress party is true to the extent that the BJP did manage to intimate to average Hindu voters that the Congress is disinterested in them as Hindus [who form over 80 percent of the population]. How to handle this is a key problem for the Congress.

    It is going to be a tough task intimating to Hindu voters that the party is not "anti-Hindu".

    Symbolic gestures do matter in this regard but the party seems clueless what symbolism to use and how to reconcile its avowed support to diversity and its efforts to seem fair to all religious communities.

    I would single out these as some of the key political failures of the Congress government - chaotic governance, failure to check corruption in high places and failure to sustain positive image through public relations.

    Today, in opposition, the Congress' main failure is an absence of attractive policy imagination.

    Ashok Swain, Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden

    The BJP has always tried to project the Congress as an anti-Hindu party. It did become quite successful in this agenda after Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party.

    However, Rahul Gandhi after becoming Congress president is trying to change that perception.

    For the BJP, it is now difficult to project Rahul Gandhi as anti-Hindu as it used to do easily to Sonia Gandhi because of her Italian origin.

    I do not see the Congress going away from its secular path as it has to provide an alternative to BJP's Hindutva (a Hindu supremacist ideology) and not be its B-team.

    The Congress-led alliance government from 2004-2014 had taken key decisions to promote inclusive growth strategy. Since 2004, a number of legislation related to social and economic rights were taken up - the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, the National Food Security Act and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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