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Can the uncrowned “prince” defeat Modi?

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By Sumedh Raina

Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi was all but written off after his crushing defeat in the last elections. But he seems to have energised a struggling Congress party and increasingly set the agenda with a hard-hitting campaign. And this was apparent when the roads in the small town of Amethi were choked with supporters when Rahul Gandhi turned up to file his nomination papers last week.
Gandhi – smiling and waving on an open truck, accompanied by his sister Priyanka – was greeted all along the 3 km route to the district collector’s office by party workers. Many waved flags, others carried their photographs and town residents showered them with rose petals.
The 48-year-old is a three-term MP from this town and is now seeking a fourth term. This time though, he’s also standing in Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala – leading to the BJP alleging he’s scared of losing Amethi to their candidate Smriti Irani, who put up a tough fight in 2014. Congress leaders have defended the move, saying it will help widen their base in the south.
When the party faced electoral setbacks in several state elections, he was seen as “remote and inaccessible” and critics and rivals ridiculed him on social media as a bumbling, clueless leader prone to gaffes. Narendra Modi, who comes from a humble background, repeatedly criticised him for rising to the top not on merit, but because of belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
But then things began to change: Gandhi started to emerge from the shadows, his social media campaigns became smarter and he began arguing convincingly about the government’s controversial currency ban, a lack of employment opportunities, growing intolerance in the country and the slowdown in the economy. And all this appeared to have come true last year when he led the Congress to victory in important state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
The Congress party has promised to give cash handouts to 50 million poor families if elected to power
In recent weeks, there’s also been a lot of chatter about the party’s minimum income guarantee scheme that promises to give cash handouts to 50 million poor families if the Congress is elected to power. One analyst described it as a “perfect disrupter” which could help the party improve their election tally.
It was certainly well-timed – the scheme was announced just as pollsters began suggesting that India’s air strikes in Pakistan may help the BJP to victory. The announcement brought the conversation back to poverty and lack of jobs and made the BJP fairly uncomfortable.
But it’s not going to be a game-changer in 2019, says Prof Sanjay Kumar of research organisation CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies).The Congress party, Prof Kumar says, faces multiple disadvantages.
“Their leaders don’t have the language skills, they are carrying huge baggage because many in the majority community believe that Congress follows the policy of minority appeasement and when they question the government’s honesty and accuse it of corruption, not many are ready to buy that because the Congress has had so many corruption allegations against it in the past.”
Many of Gandhi’s supporters in Amethi believe that they are electing the PM, not an MP. The biggest disadvantage though, he says, is that it’s not just their support base that’s eroded – they also lack the party workers required during an election.
Several Congress leaders, too, have hinted that 2019 is really not a “do-or-die” battle for the party and that 2024 is perhaps a much more realistic goal.
“Just because you lose one battle doesn’t mean you turn around and close shop and say, ‘I can’t do anything.’ If I lose the election, would I say let’s pack our bags and go home? No, no, no,” Rahul has said.
So, it is not fair to write him off. He may spring a miracle.