Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of India's main opposition Congress party, receives a memento from people belonging to India's low-caste Dalit community during a rally ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on November 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

A legislative election in the Indian state of Gujarat has assumed an outsized importance for the 2018 political agenda for the nation’s two main political personalities: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has been ruling the state for the past 22 years; and Rahul Gandhi, who is trying to lead a spirited revival of the country’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress (the INC, which, incidentally, will elect him party president during the next two weeks).

The poll dates are December 9 and 14, and Modi is not expected to let the state slip from his party’s grip, though the boss of his party, Amit Shah, no longer speaks of winning 150 of the 182 state assembly seats. If anything, Rahul Gandhi’s newfound confidence makes it look like being a closer contest than anyone would have expected six months ago; and since his party is not expected to win, he has nothing to lose.

If Modi’s party squeaks through, the prime minister will heave a sigh of relief and focus on fixing the goods and services tax (GST), the single-payment, multi-tiered nationwide tax system that was hastily rolled out in July. It is now believed that its hurried roll-out was aligned to the 2019 parliamentary poll schedule: that the glitches would necessarily take a year to be ironed out (this includes the various software problems).

His government hopes that if the GST blues settle down by June 2018 it will give him a year for businesses to stock up on inventory and get back on the growth track, so that by May 2019, when elections would be in full swing, the economy would be visibly on an upswing. The feedback from the SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) sector is that businesses have grudgingly switched over to formalized transaction and accounting because of the twin policy measures of the November 2016 demonetization of high-value currency and the GST.

If the Gujarat result is so narrow that the Congress can claim a moral victory, or if the result actually favors the Congress (which is seen as unlikely), then Modi’s government will be struck by paralysis. Ironically, he and his followers have claimed that the various corruption scandals that the government headed during 2012-2014 by his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, found itself mired in had led to policy paralysis. (The Congress now alleges that the scandals were phantoms conjured by a BJP-sympathetic comptroller and auditor general, and a Modi-friendly media.)

For Rahul Gandhi, the only bad scenario from the Gujarat election is if his Congress party loses badly, but even his opposite number Amit Shah does not speak of such an outcome any more

There is even speculation that Modi may advance the parliamentary poll, to minimize the adversity that might pile up by May 2019. This is another irony: A year ago, there was talk that Modi would advance the parliamentary poll because his popularity would ensure for him another thumping majority. It was also aimed at moving toward simultaneous state and national elections the following time around.

For Rahul Gandhi, the only bad scenario from the Gujarat election is if his party loses badly, but even his opposite number Amit Shah does not speak of such an outcome any more. For more than a decade Gandhi was seen as reluctant and unprepared, even though he is now 47 years old; with this election he has found his voice, and he addresses with confidence his heavily attended campaign rallies.

A key to his future move was last week’s failed attempt to tie up an electoral alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a group that splintered off the INC in 1999 over Rahul’s mother Sonia’s foreign origins. Though the tie-up did not finally work out – the NCP had two seats in the outgoing assembly but wanted to contest 11 in the election, while the Congress was prepared to part with only eight – Rahul had pushed for continued talks after it initially failed.

This showed his willingness to go in for electoral alliances to stop the BJP and dethrone Modi. It is another contrast between Rahul and the Modi-Shah duo, who keep their own coalition allies such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra at arm’s length. None of the non-BJP political parties are great fans of Modi, even if some of them are willing to work with him at the moment, such as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E K Palaniswami.

The political opposition has been scared into silence by an energetic Central Bureau of Investigation, which is controlled by the prime minister. But indications are afoot that come April-May 2018, they will get into action forming a platform and a plan to take on Modi.

Rahul Gandhi’s openness to political alliance should hold him in good stead, even if he turns out to be a tough bargainer. He will continue to gain confidence throughout 2018. Severe anti-incumbency would mean a good chance for the INC in the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assembly elections in late 2018. Modi’s year may well turn out to be uncomfortable.

Aditya Sinha

Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based on the outskirts of Delhi. He tweets at @autumnshade.

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