Time for Rahul Gandhi to capitalise on BJP mistakes

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The developments in recent weeks have seemingly been a flurry of activities within the ruling NDA and the Opposition parties, which are being termed as the preparatory exercises for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A surmise which is reinforced by twin developments — fault lines developing in the Modi government in its quest for building a ‘New India’ and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi indicating his willingness to be at the helm, what one expert calls ‘fresh efforts for an image makeover.’ It becomes discernible from the turn of events unfolding over the past few weeks, as reported in the media, that the Modi government is loosening its grip on the narrative that it has tirelessly built over three years.
Rahul Gandhi’s clarion call from Berkley (California, USA) of his readiness to be at helm, during his recent US visit, is being termed by some critics as having set the tone for the upcoming battle for the 2019 General elections. Some experts opine that Rahul’s recent efforts for an image makeover have twin effects — on the one hand, it has instilled a renewed sense of hope among the Congress workers, and on the other, it has sent ‘mild jitters’ in the BJP camp — which is being interpreted by these experts that 2019 Lok Sabha elections could be a no-hold barred battle.

BJP’s Dilemma
In the wake of slowing down of the economy and jobless growth, which are mainly attributed to demonetisation and ill-timed hasty implementation of the GST, the BJP has been at the horns of dilemma and facing opprobrium, not only from the Opposition, but from within the party as well. Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, both senior BJP leaders, have launched scathing attack on Modi government’s economic policies. Media reports indicate that there is a small chorus of voices from within the BJP who have been openly critical of the central government’s controversial economic decisions, especially demonetisation and GST.
It also becomes evident from media reports that the RSS has also been critical of the government’s handling of
GST implementation and demonetisation. In early September this year, S Gurumurthy, RSS ideologue and economic commentator, is reported to have said that Indian economy was hitting the bottom. Some media reports also indicate that in June this year, just prior to introduction of GST, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an offshoot of the Sangh Parivar, in a press note had criticised the government policy: “…Swadeshi Jagran Manch has been saying for long that though GST will make compliance easier for big businesses, multi-state operators and TNCs (transnational or multinational corporations), but at the same time onus of compliance for small scale industry may cause a host of problems…”
Critics are divided in their reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of economic deceleration wherein he has tried to project the GDP growth slump to 5.7 per cent during April-June as a one-quarter phenomenon. While disagreeing with PM Modi’s projection of critics of his government’s economic management as Cassandras spreading pessimism and despair, one expert has pointed out that the fact is, however, that India has been experiencing a growth slowdown for not one but five successive quarters since January-March 2016.
Critics point out that mere denial and shirking from accepting the reality will do good to none, especially when the economy is currently in the middle of a serious growth and investment slowdown that needs to be addressed. Emphasizing that flawed implementation of policies has rendered prospects for the manufacturing sector uncertain in the near term, these critics emphasize on adopting immediate corrective measures to bring the derailed economy back on track and help restore confidence of the trading community.
Coming months will severely test the Modi government, especially in the realm of economy and job creation, and its impact will decide the fate of the party in the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections. Inability of restoring economic confidence may claim heavy toll for the party in electoral terms in assembly elections in some BJP-ruled states in 2018.

Opposition’s Conundrum
If BJP faces the dilemma of anti-incumbency factor owing to its flawed implementation of economic policies, the Opposition is also faced with the conundrum of disunity and lack of a prime ministerial face to match Modi in the run for 2019. However, the Congress camp seems enthusiastic, especially in the aftermath of Rahul Gandhi’s recent return from the US.
Undoubtedly, Rahul’s speeches in California and Princeton may have helped him in being projected in a ‘new political avatar’ and in a role he has been expected to play since long; nevertheless, he has more strenuous challenges ahead of him. He faces an uphill task of rejuvenating the Congress party and boosting the sagging morale of party workers, especially at the state level. One expert has opined that the scale of the Congress party’s disaffection is so great that its rejuvenation is unlikely to come via Berkeley or Princeton, but through Rahul’s unfailing engagement across the length and breadth of India. Besides, he has to prove his credentials as a unanimous choice of the Opposition for prime ministerial candidate for 2019.
Opposition today is a divided house where unity still looms like a chimera. The experiment of Mahagathbandhan during the recent Bihar assembly elections, where non-BJP Opposition parties like JD (U), RJD, Congress and Left parties had united against the
BJP-led NDA and succeeded in capturing power and giving a crushing blow to the NDA, had raised the hopes of Opposition unity and media was abuzz with speculations that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar could be Opposition’s candidate for 2019 LS polls. However, futility of these speculations came to fore in the wake of Nitish Kumar-led JD (U) joining hands with BJP and formation of coalition government in Bihar.
The non-NDA Opposition comprises Congress, Left parties, Samajwadi Party, BSP, DMK, AIADMK, Mamata Banerjee-led TMC, BJD and Lalu Prasad-led RJD. Many past attempts in uniting these disparate parties under one umbrella have ended in a fiasco. Personality cult, ideological differences, vested interests and high personal ambitions of party leaders are too strong factors to enable them to come together. Even if penchant for sharing power at the Centre and respective states prompts them to come together, the question of sharing power entails the possibility of dividing them as happened with the Janata Party.

Way Ahead
Under given circumstances, both the BJP-led NDA and the non-NDA Opposition are optimistic of making hay while the sun of 2019 Lok Sabha election shines. Congress party’s hopes hinge on Rahul’s capability to capitalise on some of the mistakes made by the NDA government, change in his learning curve and letting the BJP tie itself in knots. One expert opines that people will welcome an Opposition that can rise to the occasion, bring in a new team, a different approach to ideas, along with a renewed sense of the vibrancy of Opposition not the knee-jerk comments of a fatalistic Opposition. However, if the Modi government manages to tide over the prevalent economic crisis and tackle the unemployment problem in coming few months, then it would give a tough fight to the Opposition.

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