Last year’s Indian parliamentary elections ended with a clear verdict: not only had the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won again, but it was confirmed that the party’s sole national rival, the Indian National Congress, lacks the strength, popularity, a sense of a direction, and a strong, charismatic leader. By comparison, the BJP’s leadership and India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mastered the art of continuous self-promotion. Thus, his rivals need to come up with a strong candidate how might be projected as the next Prime Minister.
I will not try to guess which leader will be eventually selected to throw down the gauntlet in front of Modi in 2024. Given the disarray of the party, even the Congress may not know this yet. What I will consider instead is which candidates would have a better chance against the current prime minister.
The next general elections are still four years away, but the soul searching has already started. One of the Congress’ weaknesses, however, is that its reins are held by an old guard that refuses to step aside and allow a gust of fresh air into the party leadership. For years, the commanding position belonged to the queen-behind-the-scenes, Sonia Gandhi, who groomed her son, Rahul Gandhi, as her heir. Yet, after a string of defeats that weakened the Congress over the last six years, Rahul Gandhi resigned from the post of party president in 2019 and appears to be adamant in his decision.
For now, the responsibility to set the party on the new course is back on the shoulders of the queen: Sonia Gandhi. Her current presidency of the party is presented as temporary, however, until a new leader is found. The dynastic line may be retained if Sonia Gandhi picks her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, for the position. Alternatively, the responsibility may be given to some of the senior leaders who have cooperated closely with Sonia Gandhi in recent years. While one of her most-trusted men, Ahmed Patel, shuns publicity and is not expected to take the post, one name from this group that was doing rounds was that of Mallikarjun Kharge.
Which of these choices would work best? In my view, none. A winnable candidate against Modi must not only have the air of charisma around him, but also the aura of a strong leader and a track record of governance. Before becoming the prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat for over 12 years and by the time of next elections, he have been prime minister for 10 years. A candidate with little or no experience of public administration cannot be projected against him. The BJP’s narrative machine would continuously question his or her qualifications and so would a part of the electorate.
Except for Kharge, none of the above-mentioned politicians have the experience of that scale. Sonia Gandhi made a terrible mistake of not making Rahul Gandhi a cabinet minister despite having 10 years in power to do so (in 2004-2014). There are some regional leaders to choose from, however: those who have proven they can win state elections even now, when the party has lost the plot. Such politicians probably have more support on the ground level in their regions than many members of the party’s central leadership.
In other words: it is not only about experience, but a fresh experience and the capability to win elections against Modi’s BJP. Some of the Congress old-timers are undoubtedly very experienced politicians. But they have been winning elections in the pre-Modi era, when the Congress was powerful and it was the BJP that was clueless. Modi and his PR machine are now largely setting the tune of public debate and the Congress must figure out how to post a reply. Some key leaders of the old guard, such as Mallikarjun Kharge or Mukul Wasnik (who was reportedly also considered for the post of the party president), indeed won elections and held ministerial positions in the past. But they have lost their electoral contests in Modi’s time (since 2014), and have been working for the party structure, not in public administration, in the last few years.
There are only three states in India in that the Congress rules independently right now and their chief ministers could be considered for the position. These are: Captain Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Bhupesh Baghel (Chattisgarh), and Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan). However, the former two are not part of the Congress Working Committee – the party’s top decision-making body – which may be an indication of their relatively weaker position. This could indicate Gehlot’s higher chances. Indeed, when Rahul Gandhi quit, some of the media claimed Gehlot was set to become the party president (which he denied, as well as declared he is not interested in the post). While all three chief ministers stated that Rahul Gandhi should continue as party president, this was what virtually all Congress leaders were declaring in public. It does not have to mean that they would not take the offer if given a chance
Another regional leader, Kamal Nath, is tainted by his role in 1984 anti-Sikh riots (although a similar accusation against Modi did not stop him from becoming the prime minister). While under his lead the Congress did narrowly beat the BJP in 2018 in elections in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and Nath became the chief minister, he eventually lost the chance to gain more experience in high-level governance when in March this year the BJP unscrupulously toppled his government by taking over a part of the legislature.
The Congress needs a vast revamp to convince the electorate that it has something new and doable to offer. In order to do this, the party could field a younger leader as its president and/or prime ministerial candidate. By this I mean a person both younger than the old guard and not belonging to the party’s ruling dynasty, as otherwise Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are also considered “young leaders.” In the Congress and the BJP, the “younger” generation are 40-50 olds. The old guard appears unlikely to allow such a transformation, however.
Yet, in case a such a leader is indeed considered, the party may opt for Sachin Pilot, the current deputy chief minister of Rajasthan and a person with current experience in both fighting and winning elections, as well as in administration. This, however, would not be easily acceptable for his superiors, including Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, as these politicians simultaneously cooperate and compete in their state.
Which of these options would work best? In my view, Captain Amarinder Singh. He has been the chief minister of Punjab for three years already (and five years in the past). He would have to win the 2022 state elections to keep his chances higher, however. He is also a senior leader and would not be perceived as inexperienced when posed against Modi. Moreover, Singh is regarded as a strong leader and is a former soldier and is also known to be very critical of Pakistan (a view that led him into open disagreements with his party colleague in the Punjab chapter of the Congress, Navjot Singh Sidhu). This is an important aspect to consider when countering the BJP and Modi, who base a significant part of their narrative on stressing that they are able to defend India from Pakistan better than others. It may be difficult for Modi to outdo Singh at least on this one front.
All of the above also assumes that Congress will be able to gather a coalition that could take on the BJP and will remain important enough to suggest a prime ministerial candidate to its allies. Given the party’s current disarray, even this remains uncertain, however. Two other scenarios may arise: (1) that the Congress will become numerically so weak that it will not be even able to play a leading role in a broader anti-BJP coalition, being forced to accept a leader of another, regional party as a candidate for the prime minister’s post, or (2) the Congress will become sidelined completely and another party will take its place (although the latter should take much more than four years).
Until any of those scenarios are realized, the BJP and Modi, with their massive finances and a powerful PR machinery, will remain unchallenged. For now, Narendra Modi’s biggest rival is himself.