I had written elsewhere how Rahul Gandhi reminded me of the late actor Dev Anand’s character in the film Asli Naqli. Playing a rich man’s grandson, Dev laments, “No sooner I had drawn a line on paper, everyone claimed no painter had ever shown such imagination.” 

Like Dev, Rahul too has never lacked for fawning assorted elites in media, academia or entertainment. While this meant the Congress president has always enjoyed a positive press even when he was leading his party from one electoral disaster to another, the downside of this unconditional adulation is the feedback mechanism getting clogged with chatter from cheerleaders. 

With the Assembly election results earlier this week, the aforementioned chatter is at deafening proportions, and one would not be surprised if the Gandhi scion and his coterie are suddenly feeling 2019 is theirs to take. While there is no denying that the Assembly election results in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have put some serious tailwind behind the Congress, the developments over the three days since the results also point towards some fairly visible cracks in the GOP’s armour. A brief analysis follows.  

Irrespective of the Congress’s decision to double down and seek Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe, there is no doubt that the Supreme Court verdict on Friday, dismissing all petitions regarding the Rafale deal, is a body blow to the party. 

The Congress indulged in a witch-hunt for petty political gain and ended up empty-handed. I have written in these pages about the foolhardiness of attacking Narendra Modi where he is least vulnerable — personal integrity. The psychological motivations as well as strategic reasons behind it notwithstanding, a Supreme Court clean chit to the NDA government effectively means Rahul’s campaign in the Assembly elections was based on a lie ("chowkidar chor hain!"). When he seeks mandate for the Lok Sabha, you can bet there will be questions on this. 

The Supreme Court verdict, by its nature, was out of control for Rahul. The same, however, cannot be said about the way he has gone about the selection of his chief ministers. The selection process so far shows the Congress stuck in its old ways. 

As if the violent demonstrations by the supporters of Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and the alleged clashes between the supporters of Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh were not bad enough by themselves, the party involved Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra in the process, even as mainstream media was fawning over the use of the 'Shakti' app to choose the chief minister in Chhattisgarh democratically. 

In today’s aspirational India, a voter, especially a first-time, young one, might get turned off knowing that the leader he/she voted for, has to wait, hat in hand, for someone like Priyanka, who is not even a full-time politician, to decide his fate. 

If Priyanka and Sonia’s involvement hints at weakness on the part of the party president, then the choice of Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot over Jyotiraditya Scindia and Pilot respectively reaffirms Rahul’s inability to establish his hold over the so-called 'old guard' within the party. 

We saw it during Ahmed Patel’s election to the Rajya Sabha, we saw it during the contentious claim-staking process in Karnataka and we see it again now. As long as Rahul is dependent on the old guard to carry the day in must-win situations, they will continue claiming their pound of flesh. In this particular case, cynics also see some insecurity on the part of Rahul to let younger leaders assume important positions.

 The issue in Madhya Pradesh is only made worse by allegations against Nath of participating in the horrific massacre of Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Replacing Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 59, and Vasundhara Raje, 65, with Scindia 47, and Pilot, 41 respectively would have been a powerful message to the 13 crore-odd first-time voters in 2019. Instead Rahul went with leaders older than their respective outgoing counterparts. Rahul must own up this opportunity loss as surely as he takes the credit for the Assembly election results. 

The reasons for Rahul’s inability to remove the old guard and replacing them with younger blood can be multiple and only a core insider can know the full story. However, based on past observations, it appears to be a combination of a lack of confidence in Rahul’s abilities as a campaigner (wildly overrated by the fawning media and nowhere close to his principal opponent’s) and the party’s correct understanding that facing the ruthless electoral machinery of the BJP and Modi’s charisma, the Congress would have to depend upon non-elected institutions to carry the day from time to time. 

The problem is while the Patels and Sibbals are crafty strategists in those tasks, their public perception is not exactly desirable. And as long as the party continues using their services, Rahul can never create a perception of a rejuvenated, new-age unit. It is one of those things where consequence is impossible to remove from the action. When you pick one end of the stick, you pick the other. As simple as that. 

Rahul has two other significant challenges going into 2019. With his party’s ignominious loss in the Mizoram elections, the Congress is officially out of the Northeast. The party has already suffered setbacks in the south, going from majority to being a junior partner in Karnataka, and being routed in Telangana. 

The Telangana loss is especially ominous since the Congress’s alliance partner, TDP has borne the bigger brunt of voter discontent. The magnitude of the ground lost by Chandrababu Naidu would play on the minds of other regional satraps when they come to the pre-poll alliance negotiating table. 

The combination of the losses in the Northeast and lost ground in the south means that the Congress will be relying excessively on its performance in the Hindi heartland in the general elections. That in turn might limit their options in pre-poll alliances as Rahul will have to do the tightrope walk of stitching together an alliance in important states like Uttar Pradesh while not letting the minimum number of seats the party needs to go below the threshold. 

The other important challenge, of course, is the message that the Congress wants to give to the voters. The posturing in public aside, the party strategist would have taken cognisance of the fact that in the recent elections, in spite of three terms of anti-incumbency in one state and a somewhat disorganised campaign by the BJP in another, the Congress was not able to cross the half-way mark on their own.
Apart from Chhattisgarh, the Congress had to toughen out the wins rather than scoring landslide victories. It is never an encouraging sign when you are unable to score facile wins even when your opposition is facing the anti-incumbency headwind. To have a realistic chance to dislodge the NDA from the Centre, the Congress would need much bigger wins. Do they have a message that will build the momentum? 

Even assuming that the "chowkidar chor hain" rhetoric worked in the Assembly elections, it would be foolhardy to repeat that given the unequivocal Rafale verdict of the Supreme Court on Friday. Which means Rahul and his team will have to come up with almost a brand new pitch and that is where the easy ride Rahul has had so far might come to haunt him. You see, unlike almost every other leader of similar position, Rahul has never been questioned seriously on his economic policies, his job creation strategies, his exact stand on issues like gauraksha or Ram Mandir. 

Since 2014, Rahul has been cruising on the “everything that is Modi is bad” rhetoric and the mainstream media, with a dog in the fight, have played along. They have complimented him on his soft metrosexual persona, they have discussed how “BJP trolls” are insecure about him. What they have not done, like they would have, if we had a functioning mainstream media, is ask a series of hard questions that would have allowed Rahul to tell the masses what he stands for. 

In the next three months or so, Rahul and his team will have to create that message, and hope they have enough time to communicate it to the voters. Will Rahul prove himself equal to the task of tailoring his message, demonstrate that he can take important decisions without mother or big sister, keep the old guard in check and motivate the new guard into believing him? The answer to these questions will determine the Congress’s performance in the 2019 general elections to a large extent.