Right since the build-up to the Lok Sabha electoral battle of 2019 veered round to ‘Modi versus the rest,’ doubts have existed over whether the much-touted Opposition unity would pass the acid test of who would be the leader of the challengers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The question boils down to the level of acceptability of any individual in the face of many aspirants to the coveted chair vying with one another.
The question came to the fore starkly when Congress president Rahul Gandhi held his first Iftaar get-together in the run-up to the Muslim festival of Eid on June 13. Speculation centred around how many and who of the prominent political bigwigs would be at the dinner.
In the past, at other events co-hosted by Rahul with mother Sonia Gandhi, the attendance of big leaders had inspired hope but there always was Sonia to herd the Opposition flock together. This time around, however, Sonia Gandhi is away overseas and interest centred on how it would be with Rahul’s main prop not in India.
It was a revelation indeed that a whole galaxy of Opposition bigwigs kept away. These included Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, among others. Out of 18 Opposition parties invited, only four were represented by their top leaders. Second string leaders represented the rest while the Samajwadi Party was unrepresented.
Former president Pranab Mukherjee was conspicuous by his presence, but apparently, his attendance had a lot to do with his recent fraternizing with the RSS top brass at the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur which had piqued Congress leaders no end.
Also present was former Vice-President Hamid Ansari whose bias for the Congress and antipathy towards the BJP was never in doubt even when he was in office.
The contrast with Sonia Gandhi’s Iftaar in 2015 was all too evident when most Opposition leaders were present, the most high-profile among them being Nitish Kumar who is now in Modi’s camp.
Evidently, there are few takers among Opposition bigwigs for Rahul’s leadership of a combined Opposition and that should worry the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who is aspiring to the mantle of prime minister with active help from his mother.
The cold reality is that while Sonia Gandhi has acquired a measure of acceptability, Rahul’s poor leadership qualities and political acumen, his shallow understanding of national and international affairs and his poor level of maturity have attracted only the rank opportunists towards him.
It is hardly a secret that even Congressmen are by and large unconvinced that he can lead a motley crowd of diverse political parties, but they stick to him in the hope of being rewarded if he is catapulted to the high office.
While Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar had left the Congress to form his own party the Nationalist Congress Party some years ago on the dynastic question, Mamata, Mayawati and Akhilesh have serious reservations about Rahul as leader. Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao too falls in the same category.
Election after election in which Rahul has campaigned vigorously has shown that he is far from being a vote-catcher, in contrast to the almost magical charisma of Narendra Modi who mesmerises his audiences.
Rahul’s barbs too don’t cut much ice and are often in poor taste. At the Iftaar dinner, to the delight of those like Sitaram Yechury of the CPM at his table, Rahul mocked at Prime Minister Modi for his fitness video, calling it bizarre. Some of the leaders had a good laugh while Pranab Mukherjee reportedly sat with a glum face.
That the sheen has worn off in Modi’s case is a manifestation of an anti-establishment mood that is palpable but, as things stand, it would be no mean task for Rahul to rise to be a credible challenger to the Prime Minister.