News Wrap: Congress Decides Against Fielding Rahul for PM

Last Thursday, the Congress Party formally announced that Rahul Gandhi would not be named its prime ministerial candidate heading into the general elections slated for April-May. The decision was made amid concerns that the election could turn into a head-to-head contest that pitted Mr. Gandhi against the BJP’s highly popular prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who is widely perceived as a far more competent campaigner. 

An article published in Mint analyzed the political implications of Congress’s decision. 

“…Congress may have implicitly exposed itself to the charge that it is attempting to shield Gandhi from a direct confrontation with Gujarat chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and from being blamed for a possible loss in the election as predicted by most polls.”

“The Congress’ announcement has robbed the BJP of a key element of its script—the party has sought to portray the coming election as a face-off between Modi and Gandhi.”
Despite substantial support among party leadership for nominating Mr. Gandhi to the post, Congress president Sonia Gandhi intervened. 

“The decision to not name Gandhi seems to have been taken by…Sonia Gandhi. The Congress does not have a tradition of naming a prime ministerial candidate before the elections, she was reported as saying at the meeting, by Janardan Dwivedi, general secretary of the party.” 

According to report in the Hindustan Times, Sonia Gandhi appeared to stand by her decision and emphasized that the upcoming election should be a contest of ideas rather than personalities.  

“A day after deciding that party-vice president Rahul Gandhi will lead the poll campaign, the Congress president announced that the party was ready for an election of ‘conflicting and clashing’ ideologies.”

“‘It will be a sharpening contest between conflicting ideologies, between competing interpretations of the past and clashing visions of the future. It will be a battle for India as conceived by our founding fathers, a battle for age-old secular traditions,’ she said.”

The Financial Times quoted E Sridharan, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who provided some further insight into why Mr. Gandhi had not been declared the prime ministerial candidate. 

“It’s a risk-averse strategy,” says E Sridharan, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Advance Study of India. “You don’t anoint him in a situation where he looks like a loser and then damage the brand for the future.”

Poornima Joshi, writing in The Hindu Business Line, described the decision taken by Congress as a smart tactical move that puts the BJP in a more difficult position.   

“[The] ruling party crafted its own turf rather than fight the upcoming elections on the BJP’s home-ground where Modi’s larger-than-life persona and skill for rhetoric was bound to overshadow Rahul Gandhi. Instead, the Congress revealed that it intends to turn the predictable personality clash into a battle for the superior idea of India.”

“The Congress has refused to gratify [the BJP] by doing the predictable and the Opposition’s strategy will need to change accordingly. Darting barbs at Rahul Gandhi would have been infinitely simpler than fighting against the charge of dividing and communalising polity and politics. In the run-up to the election campaign that has so far been predictably one-sided, the Congress has certainly dealt a surprise hand.”

A column appearing in The Asian Age took a slightly different viewpoint, arguing that the decision will have little bearing on the electoral contest since Rahul Gandhi is already widely perceived as the future leader of the Congress. 

“[The] plethora of comments and ceaseless speculation that [Ms. Gandhi] is trying to ‘shield Rahul’ from a “stigma” in case of Congress defeat or that she does not want the election to become a bilateral battle between ‘Rahul and Narendra Modi’ and so on seem pointless…”

“For it is starkly obvious that if by any chance — no one knows what difference the Aam Aadmi Party will make to the calculations of the two mainstream parties, unless it self-destructs before the general election — the Congress and its allies are anywhere near coming to power, Mr. Gandhi would be the Prime Minister.”