Post-poll, Rahul aims at heading an anti-BJP coalition

Had Rahul ventured into a rematch at Amethi with Smriti, and had Priyanka contested from Rae Bareli, there would have been a burst of energy in the Congress campaign, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat

The manner in which AICC supremo Sonia Gandhi resigned from the Lok Sabha and opted for the more salubrious confines of the Rajya Sabha indicated that the plan was to field her chosen successor, Rahul Gandhi, in the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat.

Even should the effective second in command at the helm of the Congress Party repeat in 2024 his 2019 victory in Wayanad, it would not have much political resonance. Winning the Hindi belt is the most effective key to the rulership of India, which is why for Rahul a win in Rae Bareli is needed in a context where Sonia wishes to install in the Prime Minister’s Office her chosen political heir, Rahul.

Given that the odds are slim that the Congress Party tally would go significantly above the 3-figure mark in the Lok Sabha polls (and even that seems a difficult task), merely winning the Wayanad seat would not furnish enough electoral heft to enable the Congress Party to repeat 2004 and prevail over its partners in the Prime Ministerial sweepstakes, should such a time come on June 4.

Mallikarjun Kharge is as much a loyalist of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka as is A.K. Antony, who has got back into active politics after a spell of retirement by seeking to ensure his son Anil Antony’s defeat in the Lok Sabha constituency of Pathanamthitta.

Such a show of loyalty to Sonia rather than to his own son on Antony’s part has been jarring to voters, and has produced feelings of sympathy for Anil that would have been absent had his father not busied himself seeking the defeat of his own son, a candidate whose credentials are substantial, and not simply because of his surname. In a democracy, individuals have the right to choose the party they back, and this is all that Anil has done.

Had Rahul Gandhi ventured into a rematch at Amethi with Smriti Irani, and had Priyanka contested from Rae Bareli, there would have been a burst of energy in the Congress campaign that is absent in a situation where as in 2019, again only son Rahul and not daughter Priyanka has been given the opportunity to contest for the Lok Sabha.

An explanation has been proffered that Priyanka did not contest because she wanted to concentrate on a nationwide campaign rather than get bogged down in a single constituency. In fact, had Priyanka opted to contest from either Amethi or Rae Bareli, her vote pulling power as a speaker would have been substantially more than at present, when she is keeping out of the contest.

At the same time, given the ubiquity since the 1980s of Priyanka in both Rae Bareli and Amethi, she would not have needed to focus all her attention to Rae Bareli. All this is apart from the fact that Priyanka would anyway be spending a lot of time in Rae Bareli rather than elsewhere, given that her brother is contesting from the seat previously held by her mother.

Judging by his public statements, her husband Robert Vadra wanted to contest from one of the two seats traditionally held by the family he married into. Instead, an individual outside the family has been given the Congress ticket, making the contest easier for BJP MP Smriti Irani.

Whoever contests from Amethi on the Congress ticket, Smriti would present a huge challenge. She has nursed Amethi carefully, and has become a familiar face in the constituency. By not contesting from Amethi, the ruling family in the Congress Party may in the view many voters shown a lack of confidence in their capacity to defeat the hard-working and popular BJP MP from Amethi, Smriti Irani.

Consequent on the absence of Priyanka from the Lok Sabha contest, the apparent handover of Amethi to a person outside the family may significantly impact the perception, including within the party, of the ruling branch of the Gandhi family as vote pullers.

Should Rahul Gandhi lose from Rae Bareli, his inherited authority within the Congress Party would almost certainly be insufficient to ensure that Rahul be acknowledged by other allies as the leader of the anti-BJP coalition, or even as the first among equals. As for Priyanka, her absence from the contest and actually getting into the ring as a candidate will dent her effectiveness as a campaigner for the Congress Party.

Now that Priyanka is out of the fray, out of her own or her mother’s choice, should Rahul lose not just from Rae Bareli but from Wayanad, for the first time since the defeat of the Narasimha Rao government in 1996, the Congress Party may enter a period when the ruling branch of the Gandhis (in other words, the branch headed by Sonia and not Maneka) are no longer the omnipotent force within that party that they have been since P.V. Narasimha Rao left the Prime Ministership.

Although until now he has not held a single position in the executive branch of government, his mother clearly believes that Rahul is the natural heir to the office of Prime Minister that was held by three within his immediate family.

A less than impressive performance for the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha polls, combined with a defeat in one or both of the seats that Rahul Gandhi is contesting, could generate a groundswell within the echelons of the Congress Party for a party absent the dominance of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul.

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