When people who used to send you Rahul Gandhi jokes on WhatsApp start sending you Modi jokes, you know something has changed in the mood of the nation.
Yet, as the Indian National Congress looks towards general elections next year (who knows, it may be earlier than that!), there is more room for caution than cheer after what seemed like a confident, successful plenary meeting last weekend. The scion of the democratic Nehru-Gandhi dynasty presided in style as party president over a session that was perfectly timed after by-election defeats for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha constituencies of Phulpur and Gorakhpur.
On the plus side, Rahul Gandhi with his simple, informal style, has matured as a speaker in upholding the Congress ideology of multiculturalism. He has been aided by questionable issues or unimpressive shows by the Modi government, be it on the surgical cross-border strikes to check terrorism in Kashmir, the PNB-led banking fraud, demonetisation of high-value currency notes, GST, economic growth or unemployment. His oratory has improved considerably, despite the occasional glitch. For every "Pappu" barb that the BJP throws at him, his mother Sonia Gandhi's "dramebaazi" tag or "jumla" tag thrown by party spokespersons at Modi are fairly effective counters. At some point, the same barbs carry heavier or lighter weight in public life, depending on the context. Right now, Congress has at least gone well beyond the stage when National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted that the outcome of the 2019 elections was already decided in Modi's favour. The game is now wide open.
However, Congress would be making a serious mistake if it confuses its own optimism with real progress on the ground, where the it remains challenged. The best case scenario for the Congress is to remain the nucleus of an opposition alliance to unseat Modi-led NDA from power, but the nucleus status is in doubt because it has only 44 seats in the current Lok Sabha. A lot would depend on how it performs in the Assembly elections ahead of the general elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh -- all due before the next general election. If the current optimism is backed by an effective campaign in these four states, the nucleus status seems intact, provided voter fatigue and anti-incumbency sentiments come good in the three BJP-ruled states.
But we cannot rule out early general elections going by the one-nation-one-election slogan the BJP has been championing.
If Congress retains Karnataka, which is due for polls well ahead of the other three states, it gains the upper hand, but the price it has to pay seems very high. The latest decision by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Bengaluru to give minority status to the Lingayat community is bound to have a negative rub-off in northern parts where the BJP has managed to set up a Hindutva plank using its administrative powers and aggressive campaigning. Clashes within Karnataka on the issue are an indication that things are not as easy as they sound.
Rahul Gandhi's challenge in the coming days would be to ensure there is no cutting off of the nose to spite its face. A good deal in Karnataka may cause an adverse side-effect in Rajasthan or MP. Also, it gets tricky if national elections are held early alongside Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. The scene would then shift to pre-poll adjustments and alliances in other states, and the Congress hand may be weaker if it is not sure of the anti-incumbency sentiments with hard data for negotiations with potential or past allies.
If the manner in which Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have come together in UP and the publicised meeting between Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and Telangana Rashtra Samiti leader K Chandrasekhar Rao are any indication, the Congress party needs to negotiate hard to keep its nucleus status in a would-be UPA 3. Even the patchy label, United Progressive Alliance, is now in doubt.
Also, four years in power at the Centre have helped BJP establish a Hindutva narrative that has to be countered carefully by the Congress. Modi remains a strong orator, and his style of projecting his governance with brand-name programmes, fancy acronyms and powerful slogans give the BJP a marketing edge that the Congress lacks still. We also have to bear in mind the fact the BJP has captured the national imagination. Witness the recent elections in Meghalaya and Tripura, where the BJP, by shrewdly tying up with local tribal outfits, has made inroads into places where its presence was once unthinkable. It wants to do the same in Tamil Nadu, but is up against odds.
Having said that, Modi's "Achhe Din" promise and his efforts to combat corruption have not really worked well. Party spokespersons rely too much on negative talk against the Congress, and that won't work when you are in power yourself.
Rahul Gandhi the speaker now has to show if there is a Rahul Gandhi the deal-maker lurking behind. Congress has a sound set of second-line negotiators but right now, they do not have enough bargaining chips apart from the party's old brand value that is being increasingly questioned. It's being the natural re-bound alternative to the BJP is certainly not a done deal.
To use an analogy from India's half-forgotten national game, field hockey, what Congress has got is like a penalty corner, not a penalty push. It has to make a long hit and turn the ball past a formidable array of defenders to score a real goal.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)