"Why had support for the Congress declined? The survey found that the minorities, once a loyal bank, were disenchanted with the party, as were large sections of the young and the less educated." Circa 1967 Lok Sabha Election Results — India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha On May 28, 400-odd senior volunteers of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), an affiliate of the Congress, assembled in an air-conditioned hall in central Delhi. It was the second and concluding day of a national convention, an annual affair that had turned erratic in recent times. The hall was packed, the atmosphere rowdy, as one would expect from an assembly of this kind, though some of the participants looked as if they have been students far too long for their own good. On stage, Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel and Jitendra Prasada were seated with the NSUI leadership. As noon set in, the crowd grew noisier. Lunch beckoned. But the speeches were long and listless, producing an unbearable ennui. Someone in the audience began clapping, a cue for speakers to cut short their speeches. No such luck. Post lunch was different. The crowd was excited. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, was about to attend the event. Sure enough, his arrival sent the crowd into a tizzy. Rahul is the NSUI's five-star general, yet to lead the Congress party to a major victory, but loved, even revered, nevertheless. He can no longer be called young, having turned 45 on June 19, but he looks young. That is enough for NSUI volunteers to count him as their own. The NSUI has also been a cauldron of Rahul's experiments in democracy (Roji John of Kerala became the first elected NSUI president last August). When Rahul spoke, for more than 13 minutes, he kept the audience in his thrall. The speech was interspersed with potshots at Rahul's bete noire Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who led the BJP to victory in a presidential-style general election in 2014, in the process handing the Congress its most crushing defeat yet. He mocked Modi's natty dressing style, his numerous overseas visits and his grand, but unfulfilled promises. Each taunt was greeted by roars of approval from the audience. "Manmohan Singhji [Congress leader and Modi's predecessor[ said the economy is going down. The PM met him for an hour and asked him for tips to run the economy," he said, alluding to the meeting of the two men the previous day. It was time to end the speech. "Our revival is easy," he said. "The government is making successive mistakes, be it in the farmers' case, education, or Make In India [Modi's plan to boost manufacturing in India." Comeback Kid Revival of the Congress is evidently top of the mind for Rahul Gandhi. In 2014, he squared off against Modi and lost miserably. The 44 seats Congress rustled up is its lowest ever. But a year later, the NSUI event bore little signs of the humiliation. True, it was a party event and the crowd was a gathering of devotees but the enthusiasm was palpable. The NSUI appearance was one among a series of meticulously-planned events Rahul has taken part since returning from an overseas sabbatical of 56 days. He departed prior to a crucial session in Parliament during which the party confronted the Modi government over a raft of ordinances, particularly one that significantly amended the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. The awful timing and prolonged absence reinforced the image of a reluctant politician who was not cut out for politics or simply was not interested in the job. A Congress leader from Maharashtra said Rahul was indeed a reticent politician. "He would take up an issue and then disappear suddenly. When his ideas clashed with those of senior colleagues, which was often, he would retreat into a shell." If that is unusual for a politician, the press meet addressed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the aftermath of the 2014 election results was extraordinary. Rahul, who stood by his mother's side, wore the smile of a vanquisher rather than the despair of the vanquished. The Congress was soon simmering with discontent and anxiety. Former Union minister GK Vasan engineered a split in the party's Tamil Nadu unit. Congressmen such as Karti Chidambaram, the son of former finance minister P Chidambaram, Captain Amarinder Singh, deputy leader in Lok Sabha and Amritsar MP, and Kamal Nath, an MP for a record nine terms, all questioned the leadership. Read here: Ajay Maken, Delhi unit head of Congress speaks of his plans to revive his party The horrors did not end there. In the assembly elections of October 2014, the BJP unseated the Congress in Haryana and Maharashtra. The BJP's pledge to create a "Congressmukt Bharat", or a Congress-free India, which it unveiled in the 2014 campaign, no longer sounded as an empty boast. The Delhi elections in February stopped the BJP juggernaut, but the Congress did not win even a single seat. The Modi government, meanwhile, went about its business, content in the knowledge that it would brook no opposition — because there was none. "We could have attacked the government on many issues. But we didn't," said the Maharashtra leader. All that changed with Rahul's return. A series of fortuitous events were critical. In January, for a meeting with US president Barack Obama, Modi wore a fancy suit with pinstripes made up of his name. It caused much revulsion. In Rahul's absence, the Congress had used the Land Bill as springboard to unite the Opposition and launch attacks against the government. Tragically for the government, its protestations that the bill was in the interests of farmers were drowned out by the Opposition's claims that it was nothing but a ploy to snatch their land to benefit big businesses. The period coincided with severe duress for farmers owing to freak rains followed by drought. On April 19, three days after Rahul returned, the Congress organised a massive rally against the Modi government's land ordinance. The next day, Rahul who rarely speaks in Parliament, launched a scathing broadside against the government. "Yours is a government of big people, a suit-boot -ki sarkar," he thundered. "The achhe din [good days] government, they call themselves that, has failed the country." The promise of achhe din, the powerful slogan of Modi's election campaign, was blunted by the suit-boot-ki-sarkar taunt, an allusion to Modi's alleged proximity with big businesses and his dandy fashion sense. "Modi may harp on his humble beginnings, but Rahul through that one remark has attempted to say the PM can longer be identified with the poor," said a Congress leader from Gujarat. Cues from Rival A couple of weeks later, the media began critiquing the government's performance in the past year. Most of the surveys commissioned revealed that the PM remains popular, but analyses of the governments' performance were unflattering. "I will not go as far to say there is total disenchantment against Modi," said a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), an ally of the Congress. "But he is not as popular as he was last May." In the run-up to the general elections, Modi ran a gruelling campaign. His speeches were fiery. Despite a vast improvement, Rahul can't yet match Modi's charisma in public speaking. Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan said Rahul's speeches have to be coherent and his body language complex. "He has to sustain issues, not be occasional or absentminded about them. He had look more passionate, involved, obsessed. He has to interest people by creating events, eccentricities." On involvement and "creating events" at least, Visvanathan cannot fault Rahul. Since his return, Rahul has been keeping the same punishing schedule as Modi did as a campaigner in 2014. He has visited Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal, among other places, joining issue with causes as diverse as farmer suicides and distress by home buyers. In early May, Rahul also took to Twitter, purportedly to announce his schedule through a handle called @ OfficeOfRG, but also to criticise the Modi government. Since then, the government has grappled with its biggest crisis after the UK's Sunday Times reported on June 14 that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj helped controversial administrator Lalit Modi secure travel permits few days later, reports surfaced that BJP leader Vasundhara Raje Scindia, chief minister of Rajasthan, helped Modi. The Opposition has been clamouring for sacking of the two leaders. Earlier this week, Union minister Smriti Irani came under the gaze of a court for misrepresenting her educational qualifications. NSUI volunteers protest in front of Union minister Smriti Irani's house in Delhi. The Congress has stepped up attacks against the government since Rahul Gandhi's return from a sabbatical Evidently, the Congress under Rahul has borrowed a page from the Modi Book of Politics. The party's hostility against the government, the digs at Modi and aggression on social media are reminiscent of Modi's days as chief minister of Gujarat. "The Congress has learned Modi's trick of spinning words and is presenting itself as an alternative to Modi, just as Modi did when he was Gujarat chief minister, when he was effectively the opposition leader," said Zoya Hasan, a retired professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Obstruction Politics The NCP leader said Rahul is certainly getting better counsel these days. "He took the sabbatical to introspect — whether he should be in politics with a half-hearted approach or go the whole hog," he said. "Looks like it is going to be the whole hog." In the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress has 68 members, the party has obstructed the passage of the land and goods and services tax bills, forcing the government to refer those to a parliamentary panel for vetting. The events prompted finance minister Arun Jaitley to censure the Congress "for putting obstacles on growth". Here is how Chidambaram responded to Jaitley's remark at a press conference: "It was Arun Jaitley who said in a speech in London, which he repeated several times later, that obstructionism is a legitimate parliamentary tactic. The insurance bill... I was virtually imploring them [the BJP] to pass it. They obstructed it for five sessions. We passed it after three months. Did we obstruct the black money bill?" Despite his seniority and high profile, Chidambaram cannot be called a party insider. He excused himself from participating in this article saying "I may not be the right person to talk to" about Congress affairs. A colleague of Chidambaram in the Manmohan Singh ministry said the Gandhis do not trust him; they see him as ambitious and doubt his loyalty (Chidambaram quit the Congress to join Tamil Maanila Congress under GK Moopanar, Vasan's deceased father, in 1996). But he has proved to be effective in countering the BJP through a newspaper column, interviews and press meets. Few politicians are as prepared as Chidambaram while talking to the press. Besides Chidambaram, a number of Congress leaders such as Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken, Digvijaya Singh and even the media-shy AK Antony have taken turns to criticise the government. Hardly a day passes by without a press conference at the All Indian Congress Committee (AICC) office in New Delhi. Preparations for Comeback These are early days to talk about a revival, but the Congress seems to have regrouped. The haze of gloom that pervaded the party in 2014 has lifted. The credit for all this goes to Rahul, according to the 20-odd people interviewed for this article. "He is a changed man," is the refrain. Since his return, Rahul's authority in the party and even among allies has been absolute. Murmurs of a rebellion have stopped. "It is natural the old guard would resist new blood. Now all those leaders [chiefly Sonia's advisors such as Ahmed Patel and Janardhan Dwivedi] have reconciled to Rahul's ascension," said a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's highest decision making-body. Dwivedi and Patel will be sidelined when Rahul takes over as Congress president, according to this leader. "Dwivedi usually arranged meetings at the AICC. But it was Antony who oversaw the meeting of Congress chief ministers on June 9. Dwivedi sat in a corner," he said. Rahul has made no secret of his plans to infuse young blood into the party — young turks such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Jitin Prasada are counted as part of Team Rahul. But he will keep the counsel of a few elders he trusts. During the meeting of CMs, Chidambaram repeated a point he has been making publicly: Make in India is nothing but the UPA government's manufacturing policy in a new garb. "Maybe. But Make in India resonates better in the public's mind than our policy. So there is plenty to learn from the BJP and Modi," said Rahul, according to the CWC member. Rahul has also been credited with nudging Lalu Prasad of the RJD to accept JD(U)'s Nitish Kumar as the three-party alliance's candidate for chief minister in the upcoming Bihar elections. The NCP leader said Congress leaders may bitch, even abuse, the Gandhis in private, but they cannot do without the Gandhis. "When the NCP was formed [in 1999], Congress leaders such as Rajesh Pilot, Santosh Mohan Dev and Jitendra Prasada egged [NCP boss Sharad] Pawar to break away. But they chickened out in the last minute, saying they wouldn't even win their own seats if they quit the Congress," he said. "Brand Congress is synonymous with Brand Gandhi." That is true since Indira Gandhi took over the reins of the party in 1969. Except when PV Narasimha Rao was PM and Congress president in 1991 and Sitaram Kesri, who succeeded him to the party post, the Gandhis have had absolute control over the party. Congressmen attribute the family's authority and its ability to deflect criticism to the family's charisma. Charisma or not, truth is the only bona fide pan-India leader of the Congress has been a Gandhi. The Congress today does not boast a strongman identified with caste, like say the late Jagjivan Ram of Bihar, a leader of the Dalits. The assassinations of Indira and son Rajiv Gandhi (Rahul's father) have also created a wall of enigma and sympathy around the Gandhis. The family's aura faded a little during the Narasimha Rao years, but his legacy is today a blur in Congress annals. A Congress leader from Kerala said there is an inbuilt videyathwam (loyalty) to the Gandhi family in the Congress. At the NSUI meet, it was announced that slogans containing only Rahul's and Sonia's names should be heard in Rahul's presence. After last May's debacle, a factfinding report by Antony gave the Gandhis a clean chit. Unlike Sonia — the CWC is a clique of her loyalists — Rahul does not rely on anyone in particular for counsel. There is indeed an Office of RG, comprising his friends and people from various states who give him feedback. On policy, Rahul relies on academics employed with a think-tank named Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. He uses a WhatsApp and email group to consult colleagues. His itineraries are planned with an AICC general secretary in charge of a state. Lastly, he consults the presidents of state units to chart out public events. Many of the Congress leaders interviewed said they expect Rahul, who was named vice-president in January 2013, to take over as president in September. "Sonia Gandhi has been president for 17 years. Her health is not good. She will have to go abroad for (medical) checks once every year," said a senior Congress leader from Haryana. The mood in the Congress is now upbeat thanks to the government's troubles. But that only camouflages its own troubles. The last occasion the BJP ruled at the Centre, the Congress held power in 15 states. That tally has shrunk to nine. The BJP rules eight states but they are some of India's biggest. The contrasting fortunes of the two parties are manifested in the recent Lok Sabha election results. Between 1999 and 2014, the vote share of the BJP rose nearly 8% and Congress' slid by nearly 9% (see Congress' Biggest Wins...). The Congress' canon of appeasing minorities and backward castes alienated the upper castes who moved to the BJP in crucial states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Not that the gambit did the Congress any good. Backward castes prefer parties such Mayawati's BSP in UP and Nitish's JD(U) in Bihar. Minorities increasingly vote for a party that they believe is best placed to defeat BJP, as they did in Delhi. The approaching state elections too don't offer Congress comfort (see Upcoming State Elections). In Bihar, it is the junior partner in a coalition. The possibility of retaining power in Assam and Kerala are slim. "Assam is very polarised," said a BJP leader, revealing that the party is preparing to exploit the situation. The Congress — ruling since 2001 — also faces a strong anti-incumbency wave in Assam. In Kerala, the Congress government will head to elections facing a battery of sex scandals and bribery charges. Anil Baluni, a BJP spokesman, said his party is extremely confident of forming the government in Bihar. Baluni's counterpart Nalin Kohli said a Congress-mukt Bharat is very much in the BJP's sights. "In Bihar and Assam, we will win. In West Bengal, a 20 per cent share in votes is as good as a victory." The BJP also fancies its chances in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Nationwide Presence Despite the grim backdrop, Congress remains a genuine national party. In states it has lost to the BJP, it is the main challenger. It is also used to being out of power since 1989. The party is also at peace with the changed political landscape. In June 2003, at a conclave in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, it accepted that forming coalitions are inevitable, softpedalling a contrasting stand taken nearly four years ago at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh. Even the alienation of its traditional vote banks is not recent. As Guha described in his book India After Gandhi, as the minorities and youth deserted the Congress, its seat tally in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections dropped to 283 from 361 while the decline in its vote share was steeper at nearly 20 per cent. The NCP leader said the Congress has reached its nadir. "The only way next is up. And remember, the 2014 defeat was the result of a confluence of setbacks — scams, anti-incumbency, the national auditor's reports, a weak prime minister, unfriendly media, weak leadership. That was a once-in-a-life opportunity for the BJP. It won't happen again." The Congress is now looking to turn the tables on Modi. "If the (government's) promises are not delivered, we will raise the issue in parliament and on the streets," said Digvijaya Singh. Indian voters are now described as impatient and demanding of politicians. The BJP learnt it the hard way in Delhi. But the Schadenfreude only highlights Congress' own struggles. Of particular worry is the dilemma on ideology. The Congress has historically been centrist, said Hasan, a party that imbibed a mix of rightwing and leftist ideological positions. But the recast of the economy to usher in reforms since the 1990s estranged its traditional voter base: the poor and backward castes. The party did try to correct course when it felt the pinch of alienation, especially in 2004, when it returned to power. During the first term, it performed a fine balancing act between reforms aimed at the middle class and the rich and welfarism targeted at the poor. It helped that the economy grew during this period. "The fruits of growth were invested in equity," said Hasan. But in the second term, UPA , it wasn't to be. Growth stalled due to a global slowdown and welfare schemes turned slack. The dilemma for the Congress is the constituency it should cater to — the middle class or the poor? It doesn't have one. The BJP is unabashedly right wing; the party has appropriated the middle class, influential as vote constituency, and the corporates. Regional parties appeal to the poor and backward classes. Ensconced in power, the BJP has the luxury to make adjustments. In opposition, the Congress doesn't. "There are no easy answers," said a person who advises Rahul on policy. In an earlier interview, Digvijaya Singh underscored this dilemma. "Dalits and tribals who have moved up the ladder from the poorest of the poor to the lower middle class now think more like the middle class rather than the underprivileged," he said. Going by what he has done since his return, Rahul Gandhi seems to be touching all bases. Yet, it will be a struggle for the Congress to cohere these issues into a singular economic vision, said Hasan. Weak Machinery Organisation is another trouble spot. Despite the contradiction of the party reserving the highest positions for his mother and himself, Rahul is keen that the Congress elect its leaders. So far, he has been able to do that only for the NSUI. Antony, the Congress veteran, said the party has to build its machinery across India, besides being connected with the masses and issues. Except for Kerala and Assam, the party apparatus is in total disarray elsewhere in India. It is a long haul, but the Congress has got cracking in a few units such as Delhi and Gujarat. In Delhi, the party is actually rebuilding the party from scratch. The Delhi unit is following the Congress' Kerala Model, a state where the party has never yielded the political space despite crushing defeats at the hustings thanks to an enthusiastic rank and file. PC Chacko, the AICC in-charge of Delhi, who is helping Delhi unit chief Ajay Maken with the transformation, said even in seats reserved for allies in Kerala, the Congress has a strong presence. "Delhi can be a blueprint for other units," he said. A sense of pragmatism has meanwhile dawned in the party. Bihar is a case in point. Under no grand illusions, given that it is next to zero in Bihar, the party has taken the lead in cobbling together an anti-BJP alliance. Nevertheless, the NSUI remains the only evidence of Rahul's promise of transforming the Congress "in ways that can't be imagined", which he made after the assembly poll debacle in December 2013. Visvanathan said Rahul has to distance himself from the current Congress to come back to the Congress. "Yet even a medium level performance of his on farmers shows the vulnerability of BJP."