Although Congress President Sonia Gandhi is heading the party, the 2014 poll is seen as more of a test for her second-in-command, Rahul Gandhi. It is a test to see whether he can keep the Gandhi dynasty alive. In the 2009 polls Rahul chose to play second fiddle to his mother and her lieutenants. But now as number two, he is involved in every aspect of electioneering, poll strategy, campaign and selection of candidates. Congress insiders see his recent outburst about the ordinance to protect criminal politicians as the beginning of his assertion and they believe he’s now in command of the Congress party.
Rahul sees himself as an agent of change and wants to play the role of an angry young man who is impatient to change the system and his party. True to the Congress style, after Gandhi said recently that the next government would be that of youth, party leaders have revived their chanting of Rahul for PM.
The 2014 polls will be a contest between two distinctive political philosophies and contrasting views of the polity. Though there are some common features, the differences stand out. The Congress and the BJP are not different in their economic policies as they are committed to a higher growth and liberalisation. It is in the area of politics that they have their differences of approach. Rahul Gandhi is talking of inclusive politics while Modi is the face of Hindutva. The real test is how they are able to attract voters.
What is Rahul&’s strategy to achieve his goal? He has been quietly battling within the party for a change. The theme song has been the poor, empowerment at the grassroots , welfare measures for them and food security.
The biggest challenge to the younger Gandhi comes from seniors who continue to dominate the party and the government. He has bid good-bye to the traditional approach and has adopted a more aggressive stance, giving jitters to the older Congressmen who fear that they may have no place in the party and are worried at the quick changes that are taking place.
Rahul has reshaped the youth wing and created corporate departments such as communications and social media besides ‘war rooms’ and splinter cells.
He has quietly built up his own team picking up professionals and NGOs. They range from Oxford scholars to former bureaucrats and academicians with zero experience of electoral politics but are invariably experts in their fields.
While the Congress core group continues to handle political management of the party, Rahul&’s core team quietly provides key inputs on policy measures, prepares background papers and briefs Congress spokespersons on issues. This team is involved in the making of the party&’s 2014 manifesto, which was earlier entirely handled by senior Congress leaders. The growing clout of Team Rahul has created some heartburn among veterans who resent their inputs being vetted by these newcomers. He has also put young leaders like Ajay Maken and Jitendra Singh in various committees. It is through them their plans are executed.
The immediate test is the ensuing Assembly polls. Rahul has been trying to streamline the selection process for candidates. Unlike earlier times, the prospective candidates are now subjected to wider scrutiny and a detailed selection process. The ticket selection will give an indication if there is any change.
As for the campaign strategy, the shrinking Congress has to restore a dedicated support base to win the polls. For this it has to get back the support of the Dalits and Muslims, which was once its base. With the growth of caste-based parties these sections have moved away.
IN 2009, the Congress got 200 plus seats due to the support of the middle classes. But the arrival of Modi on the poll scene has changed this situation as the middle classes are disenchanted with Manmohan Singh. So, the backroom boys are now working on how to neutralise Modi&’s popularity and woo the urban middle class, which is averse to the series of scams.
The second challenge is that of minorities. The Congress is delighted that Modi has been nominated as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The Congress is hopeful that the minorities would turn towards Congress on account of polarisation.
The third is the Dalit constituency. Rahul has been trying to cultivate these weaker sections for long. That is why Rahul had staged that the Dalit community "needs the escape velocity of Jupiter" to achieve success and blamed the BSP chief Mayawati for not allowing other dalit leaders to emerge.
The fourth important issue is the media. Rahul has carefully chosen 200 plus spokespersons from all over the country and has also given them training. The plan is to expand the communications to the regional press and TV channels. However, the media strategy has not worked well so far.
Above all, where there is no sign of Rahul’s stamp is in interaction with the allies. If he has to lead a coalition, this is one area he needs to concentrate on. Allies have huge egos and the Congress has to shed its arrogance and treat them with respect.
Rahul has to face uphill tasks, more so fighting the showmanship of Modi. The ensuing Assembly elections could be a dress rehearsal for the 2014 polls. If the Congress can retain at least two states, it could be a face-saver. How far the Congress can succeed depends on the mood of the voters who are at present disenchanted with the UPA.