Bypolls: BJP was weak without Narendra Modi but Congress strong sans Rahul Gandhi?

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The latest bypoll results in states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat have been disappointing for the BJP. The party could retain only 15 of the 23 seats they had in these three states. Naturally, questions are being raised about the Narendra Modi wave which according to many has begun to recede.

The Congress, on the other hand, succeeded to wrest six seats from the BJP in Gujarat and Rajasthan where they were decimated during the last assembly elections and the Lok Sabha election this year.

So, is the Congress gaining at the BJP's loss and if it is so, what is helping it to script a turnaround?

Rahul Gandhi didn't campaign in bypolls, yet Congress did good

An important episode of this story of the Congress's rise and the BJP's disappointing show is that neither of the two parties saw their main leaders participating in the bypolls. While both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi remained away from the September 13 polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah also gave them a miss. The results were more favourable for the Congress than the BJP.

Without Narendra Modi & Amit Shah, the BJP was exposed

It reiterates in a way the significance of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the current political landscape of the country over those of the Gandhis. For the BJP, the message is very clear: You must work on your basics and not depend too much on Narendra Modi to get things right. After the Lok Sabha victory, these bypolls (the BJP also lost to the Lalu-Nitish alliance in Bihar last month) act as a reality check for the saffron party. It can't just take the Lok Sabha verdict for granted and allow people like Yogi Adityanath to go berserk with their vitriolic words.

The verdict for the Congress is a more tricky one. Is it time for the party to think beyond the Gandhis as its powerhouse and begin to work on a model of decentralisation to get back on its feet in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan?

The answer is not easy to find, at least at this moment, but the trend is certainly pointing at that. Rahul Gandhi, considered the future leader of the party, doesn't show much of an interest in bypolls, which itself is a surprise for after the decimation in the Lok Sabha polls, it was expected that the man would lead from the front in every electoral battle to bring his beleaguered party back on the track.

Why Rahul Gandhi was not interested in the bypoll? Reluctance?

The Congress sycophants might cite Modi and Ami Shah for they also have not participated in the bypolls but they fail to understand is that both Modi and Amit Shah have reached where they wanted to be while for the Congress, it is a struggle for survival. The last time Rahul Gandhi campaigned for bypolls was in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 when his party defeated the Samajwadi Party in a prestige battle. So if he could do it in 2009, why not now? Has Rahul Gandhi lost interest in UP after the 2012 assembly and 2014 Lok Sabha debacle there?

Big assembly losses in Gujarat and Rajasthan made Rahul Gandhi give up hope?

Similarly in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi didn't turn up for for the bypolls. He was reluctant to take on Modi in his home state during assembly or Lok Sabha polls and it was mostly her mother and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who did the job of attacking Modi in his home turf.

In Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi addressed quite a few rallies ahead of the assembly polls last December but once the Congress was toppled from power in a one-sided battle and subsequently faced a whitewash in the Lok Sabha election in that state, the Congress vice-president seemed to have lost interest to renew the contest.

So what does the Congress's gain without Rahul Gandhi's contribution mean? It basically points at the anti-incumbency mood against the BJP rule in Gujarat and Rajasthan and the Congress needs a full-fledged focus on the local politics to capitalise on the BJP's drawbacks further.

In Gujarat, for example, the absence of two heavyweight leaders in Modi and Shah and the presence of a new chief minister have created a welcome opportunity for the Congress to strike. The party doesn't trail the BJP much in terms of vote-shares and would require a robust organisation to turn that vote-share into seats.

In Rajasthan, it was Sachin Pilot's win

In Rajasthan also, the positive for the Congress is that a non-Gandhi and local leader in Sachin Pilot helped it make a comeback nine months after the thrashing in the assembly polls. For those Congressmen who refuse to believe that Rahul Gandhi has serious limitations as a political leader, this should be an eye-opener for them. If the Congress's top leadership is losing relevance and still the party is doing good in polls, there must be something somewhere which has done it good. The party needs to call for more decentralisation for that can help it tackle the pyramid structure of the BJP in an effective way.

Rahul Gandhi's absence in the bypolls has been a blessing in disguise for the Congress. Hopefully, it will know how to make use of the opportunity.

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