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Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi diffident about targeting Priyanka Gandhi Vadra? She has been persistent in her attacks on him, even calling him weak and a coward.

Modi has, however, chosen not to respond to her directly. He would rather train his guns at ‘jijaji’ and ‘damaad’ – her husband Robert Vadra. Even when she was launching a frontal attack on him from Lakhimpur Kheri, he wouldn’t get provoked and leave it to lesser mortals in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to do the needful.

“Why does he shy away from attacking Priyanka? Very unlike him, no? She is the only Gandhi he seems to spare,” I asked a Member of Parliament from the BJP last week. “Aap kya chahte ho? Modiji Priyanka Gandhi ko neta banaa dein? (What do you want, that Modi should make Priyanka Gandhi a leader?),” said the parliamentarian. “Anyway, she is doing enough to damage herself. Didn’t you see how she was using ‘tu, tum’ to address police officials in Sitapur? People don’t like such arrogance,” he added.

Be that as it may, it gave a glimpse of the BJP strategy: Modi can’t boost Priyanka’s political profile by picking on her. She is as ruthless and reckless as her brother in establishing the family’s writ in the Congress. But she is much better than him in many ways, say, oratorial skills, understanding of the importance of political optics and communication, and seizing moments like the Lakhimpur Kheri killing of farmers and Sonbhadra massacre of Gond tribals. BJP leaders would prefer Rahul Gandhi as Modi’s principal challenger.


Also read: SP, BJP, Congress — A guide to how Rahul Gandhi can renew aging party


How Rahul Gandhi clicks for BJP

Saffron party leaders must be satisfied with the outcome of Saturday’s Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting. It cleared the deck for Rahul’s return as the Congress president next September.

It may sound a bit unfair when BJP leaders, in private conversations, call him their ‘biggest asset.’ But, like it or not, poll results and surveys indicate that Rahul being the main challenger makes elections much easier for Modi.

Let’s look at India Today’s bi-annual Mood of the Nation (MOTN) surveys – from 2010 when Modi’s PM candidature was only in the realm of speculation. In the August 2010 survey, to a question as to who will be the best Prime Minister, 29 per cent respondents chose Rahul Gandhi and only 9 per cent favoured then-Gujarat chief minister. In the next two MOTN surveys – January and August 2011 – Modi lagged behind Rahul, securing 9 and 12 per cent votes as against Congress leader’s 20 and 21 per cent. It was in January 2012 that Modi secured a lead over Rahul Gandhi – 24 to 17 – for the first time. And that trend has continued unbroken since then.

Cut to August 2021, figures have changed but not the trend. The Covid-19 pandemic and its concomitant economic fallout have severely damaged Modi’s rating as the “best-suited” PM in MOTN polls – 24 per cent in August 2021 from 66 per cent a year ago and 38 per cent six months before. His loss hasn’t translated into much gain for Rahul Gandhi who secured 10 per cent in August 2021 as against 7 and 8 per cent in the previous two polls.

It’s back to square one for Rahul Gandhi – or perhaps even worse. If the figures read 24 to 17 for Modi and Gandhi in 2012, it’s reading 24 to 10 about a decade later, in August 2021.

In a nutshell, MOTN polls over the past decade suggest Rahul Gandhi has been consistently lagging behind Modi when it comes to the people’s choice of the next PM.

Let’s look at the MOTN surveys in the context of the Gandhis’ acceptability in the Congress. In the August 2021 MOTN poll, 45 per cent respondents said the Congress would be better off without the Gandhi family as against 46 per cent naysayers.

The solace for the Gandhis was that their position improved over the past seven months. In the January 2021 MOTN poll, 52 per cent respondents had said the Congress would do better without the Gandhi family; In August 2019, it was 49 per cent.

Incidentally, in January 2021, 16 per cent respondents wanted Dr Manmohan Singh to lead the Congress as against 15 per cent who wanted Rahul – the first time a non-Gandhi had tripped a Gandhi in the MOTN surveys. But the three Gandhis together – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – got the support of 35 per cent respondents, meaning that the Gandhi family as a whole outweighs any other Congress leader.


Also read: Congress can remind voters it knows how to rule. But Rahul Gandhi must own UPA success first


What’s next after Rahul Gandhi’s takeover

MOTN surveys suggest the choice of Rahul Gandhi as the Congress’ next president mustn’t be seen in the context of its fight against the BJP. It was about the Gandhi dynasty’s crown jewel, the Congress, and they have secured it – firmly and undeniably, with many dissenters such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Mukul Wasnik laying down arms at the CWC meeting.

What’s next then? After the last CWC meeting in May, Sonia Gandhi had appointed a five-member panel to prepare a report on the reasons for the party’s defeat in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, and Puducherry assembly elections. Everybody was curious about that report in Saturday’s CWC meet, especially about the Kerala election debacle under Rahul’s stewardship. That was not to come.

Instead, AICC in-charges of the five poll-bound states gave a lowdown on the Congress’ prospects. Their assessment was that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) would hurt it in Manipur and Goa. Mamata Banerjee must be laughing out loud; TMC’s baby steps in these states in a few weeks have given a scare to the political pachyderm, the Congress. Priyanka Gandhi, AICC in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, was realistic, conceding the prospects weren’t very good but she was doing and hoping for the best. UP Congress, virtually run by Rahul Gandhi since 2007, was in a shambles by 2019 when he handed it over to Priyanka. If only she could say how difficult it was to repair the damage done in the past.

Poll in-charges of Punjab and Uttarakhand are optimistic about the party’s prospects. The Gandhis’ hopes lie in these two states. It was a proud Rahul who told the CWC how Charanjit Singh Channi started crying when he told him he would be Punjab’s new CM. Rahul’s self-congratulatory message about his decision to appoint a Dalit Sikh as CM, however, ended up rebutting his mother’s claim that she was the full-time party president.

Although the Gandhis look firmly ensconced after Saturday’s CWC meet, there are many imponderables that may mar the celebrations at 10, Janpath. For one, now that Rahul has proudly owned up Channi, it is curtains for Navjot Singh Sidhu’s chief ministerial ambitions. Sidhu’s wrath spares none. Similarly, Congress president’s election next September means the high command won’t mess up with Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh CMs – Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel – for the next one year, at least. How will their detractors – Sachin Pilot and TS Singh Deo – react? Difficult to predict.

The only thing that can be safely predicted after the CWC meeting is this: G-21 (minus Jitin Prasada and Veerappa Moily) has lost the battle but the war will be on.

The author tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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