On Friday, the Congress vice- president Rahul Gandhi visited Telangana, a state that was carved out of the unified Andhra Pradesh, when it was governed by the Congress party. Post division, the Congress lost both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to Telugu Desam Party and Telangana Rashtra Samithi led by Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrasekhar Rao, respectively.
Andhra Pradesh wasn’t going anywhere had Congress not been bothered by the charges of promoting dynasty politics in the aftermath of the tragic death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, who was one of the most popular chief ministers. He died in a helicopter crash on 2 September 2009.
That single decision of not transferring the mantle to Jagan Reddy proved costly for Congress as it led to a split in the party, thereby significantly weakening the organisation before the grand old party lost the assembly elections in 2014.
There’s an emotional reason why Rahul Gandhi has chosen to visit Sangareddy. The Congress VP, who’s making a desperate bid to reinvent himself in the face of a series of humiliating election defeats for his party, was aware of how his grandmother, Indira Gandhi had kicked off her election campaign in 1979-80 from here before winning back the prime minister’s post.
Congress has also sensed an opportunity here. KCR has been accused of splashing the tax payers’ money on fulfilling his personal desires even as farmers continued to commit suicides due to their inability to repay their debts.
KCR is also accused of promoting his own family soon after his party came to power. His son KT Rama Rao is a minister in his cabinet, daughter K Kavitha is a Lok Sabha member and nephew Harish Rao too holds a key ministry in the state government.
Sensing an opportunity, Rahul thundered, ” Has the state been created just for four people?”
Although it’s understandable why Congress would want back Telangana given that it had gone ahead with the creation of the new state despite opposition from within the party. The party was hurt when voters in the new state did not thank the party by helping it form the government.
However, more than Telangana, Rahul Gandhi needs to focus his attention on states, where his party has a realistic opportunity to return to government. An emphatic win in Punjab earlier this year corroborated the fact that a large section of voters were still willing to repose their faith in the party if they wove the right narrative under the right leadership.
Riding the popularity crest of PM Modi, the BJP was able to form its first government on its own in Haryana in October 2014. But, not many people remember the man whom the BJP projected as the future chief minister if it came to power in the state while seeking votes in Lok Sabha elections here in May 2014.
It was Kuldeep Bishnoi, the man who had parted ways with the Congress to form his own party, Haryana Janhit Congress-Bhajan Lal. Although, his party lost both Hisar (Bishnoi’s own seat) and Sirsa, from Modi to Rajnath Singh to Arun Jaitley all had sought votes projecting Bishnoi as their future chief ministerial candidate.
The Lok Sabha results, however, changed all the calculation as the BJP decided to renege on its poll promise and bluntly told Bishnoi that the BJP with 7 out of 10 Lok Sabha seats in its kitty was no longer interested in projecting him as the alliance’s chief ministerial candidate.
That was the turning point in HJC-BL’s relationship with the BJP as Bishnoi parted ways with the BJP. After a disappointing performance in the assembly polls, he dissolved his party and returned to the Congress, the party his father Bhajan Lal represented for several decades.
Bhajan Lal remains the longest serving chief minister of Haryana as he held the post for 13 years. He also served in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet at the Centre.
Congress lost Haryana largely due to the tainted image of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who was mired in a land scam and faced several other corruption charges.
The state had a new chief minister in Manohar Lal Khattar in 2014, but his government has been nothing less than a disaster and the voters have had to pay a heavy price for the misrule.
The state faced one of the worst ever violence following the Jat agitation in February 2017, when dozens of people lost their lives and hundreds of crores worth property was damaged. The most shocking fallout of the jat agitation was the alleged gangrape of women in Murthal.
The Khattar government has also failed in checking the communal clashes in the state with the Ballabhgarh becoming the biggest epicentre of violent religious riots.
The existing government has failed in providing safety to the state’s Dalit population. General VK Singh had famously likened the burning of two Dalit children to dogs in November last year.
All these incidents point to a massive anger building against Khattar and a careful poll strategy under the right leadership can help Congress wrest power from the BJP in 2019. But for it to reassert itself in Haryana, Rahul Gandhi has to pass the baton for the state leadership to someone capable of emulating the success of Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab.
With Hooda becoming a tainted brand and Randeep Singh Surjewala lacking mass appeal and charisma, Bishnoi appears to be the Congress’s best bet to lead the party’s campaign in Haryana in 2019.
With Bishnoi as its mascot, Congress will be best suited to woo the 78% non-Jat population. Jats, who have felt cheated by the BJP will most likely have no problem in accepting Bishnoi as the state’s next chief minister.
Bishnoi can also significantly improve Congress’s electoral chances in Rajasthan, where his community members influence the outcomes of as many as 39 assembly seats and three Lok Sabha constituencies.
Going forward, Rahul Gandhi has to embrace the electoral tactics of projecting winnable regional leaders. Capt Amarinder’s success in Punjab is a case in example. For voters in Punjab, Congress was represented by the Captain and most of them voted for the latter rather than their loyalty for the party.
Rahul’s faith in regional leaders such as Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh and Kuldeep Bishnoi in Haryana may be nothing less than a game changer and might renew the electoral fortunes of the party, PM Modi so desperately wants to see India free of.
As for Hooda and Surjewala, the party can often exploit their experiences at the national level. It’s the horses for courses strategy that Rahul Gandhi must exercise.
Rahul needs a few more electoral successes under his belt like that of Punjab to truly claim his arrival at the national level. This will also be the much-needed fitting response to his critics, who’ve already written obituaries of him.