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Has BJP Fallen In Congress Trap?

Last updated on: May 06, 2024 14:19 IST

On balance, RG contesting from Raebareli instead of Amethi isn't the masterstroke the party's adherents are touting it to be, but neither is it the blunder the BJP and its tame media is framing it as, points out Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: Rahul Gandhi, the Congress candidate from Raebareli, performs puja-archana before starting his election campaign after filing the nomination, May 3, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Narendra Modi is disappointed. Smriti Irani is disappointed. The entire BJP brass is disappointed, and so are the party's fellow travellers.

Television media, whose take on elections bears a remarkable resemblance to coverage of mixed martial arts (MMA) contests, is understandably disappointed at being denied a Smriti Irani-Rahul Gandhi cage-fight they had hoped to ride to TRP heaven through the next fortnight or so.

That said, I too was disappointed. I was anticipating the announcement that Rahul Gandhi would contest Amethi and, in a double-whammy, that Priyanka Gandhi would announce for Raebareli. That would, I thought, be huge, wow!


IMAGE: Smriti Irani, the sitting MP and the BJP candidate from the Amethi seat, along with party leader Mohan Yadav during a roadshow before filing her nomination. Photograph: ANI Photo

Back when I was learning to play chess, I developed a tic that turned into a serious problem.

I'd see one of my opponent's major pieces in a seemingly vulnerable position, and I'd want to capture it. I'd notice that it was protected by, say, a solitary pawn, so I'd think hard about how to take that pawn. Then I'd realise that if I took that pawn, there was still something else in the way, so I'd think of how to solve for that.

Pretty soon, my entire focus was on that piece -- capturing it became the single most important thing in the world, and I'd lose sight of the object of the game: To defend my king, and to capture my opponent's king.

Smriti Irani, I realised after sleeping on this, is that temptingly vulnerable piece.

For all the vainglory, word from the ground is that she has managed to make herself thoroughly unpopular in her constituency. If RG contests, more than one vernacular journalist from that area had told me in the run-up to the announcement, it will be a blowout.

Maybe, maybe not. The question, though, is who gains, who loses? And importantly, what is the big picture?

Irani clearly gains. Her political importance is anchored in the fact that she defeated Gandhi on his home ground -- a fact that she has alluded to ad nauseum any time these past five years.

What do you have to say about X issue? 'I will tell you that Rahul Gandhi is jealous of me because I defeated him...' No, not kidding -- she has responded in that fashion more than once, twisting every issue around and making it about how she had defeated RG. The image fronting this piece is from an October 2023 piece where she was 'taking a swipe' at Rahul Gandhi and saying arrogance led to his defeat in Amethi -- this, a good four-plus years after the event.

(Asked about RG's decision to avoid an Amethi contest, Irani said 'Don't give him too much importance' -- and for the rest of the day, continued to talk up the aborted contest as her big win).

In one stroke, she has lost that political cachet. An Irani-Gandhi contest would have put her centrestage in this election cycle. The party would have pulled out all the stops and mounted an intense campaign, with all the stars descending on Amethi to shill for her. Money and material would have poured in. All of that just went pffft -- the BJP, fighting fires on multiple fronts, is unlikely to pull out all the stops to help Irani fight against 'whatshisname' -- there is no publicity boost to be gained.

IMAGE: Rahul Gandhi, accompanied by Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, his mother and Congress Parliamentary Party Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, sister and party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, files his nomination for the Lok Sabha elections in Raebareli, May 3, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Ironically, she is not fighting a whatsisname, a nobody. Kishori Lal Sharma is the man who, for the best part of four decades, has tended Amethi and Raebareli on behalf of the Gandhis.

He has been the go-to man for anyone who needs help of some kind, who wants to get something done. He knows Amethi, and its people at a granular level and, more importantly, they know him. Plus, he has Priyanka Gandhi camping in the constituency more or less continuously till polling day, May 20 -- she said as much during Sharma's nomination rally.

The battle for Amethi has, in one stroke, shifted from being about the competing personalities to being about local issues -- Irani's weakest point.

What does Gandhi lose? The BJP has been taunting him about 'running away' and this will continue -- but there is a limit to how long they can flog that particular horse, and no way of quantifying what it will gain (sort of like me chasing that piece on the chess board).

The media will echo, amplify, those taunts. One senior journalist greeted the news that RG wasn't contesting Amethi with this... how do I put it... batshit take, emphasis mine: When your leader is reluctant to contest from thew Hindi heartland that's the wrong message that goes to your cadres.

So yeah, there will be taunts incoming -- but set against the larger picture, it doesn't seem that big a deal.

Against that is the fact that before the Raebareli polls, there are two crucial phases of an election that seems even more drawn out than the IPL. And both are central to the prospects both of the Congress and the alliance.

IMAGE: Rahul Gandhi at the 'Nayaya Samabesh' election meeting at Kulia in Cuttack. Photograph: ANI Photo

In phase three, all 26 seats in Gujarat, the remaining 14 in Karnataka, 11 seats in Maharashtra and 10 in Uttar Pradesh are up for grabs. Phase four is when all 25 seats in Andhra and 17 in Telangana, besides 13 in UP and 11 in Maharashtra, poll. These two phases are critical for both the BJP and the Opposition.

For now, on the plus column for Rahul Gandhi, there is this: An Amethi contest against Irani would have taken him off the board at a critical juncture. Now, he gets to focus on the whole board, to campaign across the country for not just the Congress but for the alliance as a whole. (Shortly after filing his nomination, he was back on the campaign trail, addressing what by all accounts was a massive rally in Pune).

It is not that he can ignore Raebareli -- his BJP opponent there is no pushover. Dinesh Pratap Singh, who lost to Sonia Gandhi in 2019, is well entrenched at the grassroots level and a three-time MLC. It is likely to be no cakewalk for Gandhi, but neither is it likely to be the sort of distracting high-octane drama that a Gandhi-Irani battle would have turned into -- a battle that would have dominated the narrative and drowned out the Opposition's message.

On balance, RG contesting from Raebareli instead of Amethi isn't the masterstroke the party's adherents are touting it to be, but neither is it the blunder the BJP and its tame media is framing it as.

It has the feel of a decision taken by the party after weighing the pluses against the minuses and deciding that a short-term loss of narrative is worth it when set against the freedom RG and the party gains to keep up the campaign pressure.

As someone who would like to see the end of what, to my mind, is the most dangerous regime this country has had to endure, I'll breathe easier than I did some 24 hours ago.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/