Dr Samuel Johnson, the English literary critic, found in 17th century metaphysical poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas…yoked by violence together.” A witty analogy of paradoxical imagery and ideas made such poetry a rage. But politics is no metaphysics. Last month, when Congress vice-president (VP) Rahul Gandhi got down from a chopper at Park Circus Maidan in Kolkata and climbed the dais to be garlanded with former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at an election rally, it looked surreal.
The Congress and the Left, bloodthirsty arch rivals for decades, buried the hatchet to launch a joint offensive against, Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister who adores late Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress VP’s father.
It was a desperate move for survival on the part of the Congress. On Thursday though, when assembly election results came out, the 130-year-old party looked in a shambles. Ousted from Assam and Kerala, the Congress was left to rule only six states, mostly tiny ones, and the union territory of Puducherry, which together account for barely 7 per cent of India’s population. The Bhartiya Janata Party, on the other hand, rules 13 states and holds sway from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Kutch to Kamrup, as party chief Amit Shah put it.
Did Thursday’s results indicate a permanent change in the country’s political landscape? Is the BJP on the verge of achieving “Congress-mukt Bharat”?
The answers depend on who you ask. For union minister Nitin Gadkari, it’s an irreversible change. “People of this country want change. The Congress has ruled for 60 of the 68 years (since Independence). Now people want new leadership, a new way of thinking…People are fed up with family-party politics,” says the former BJP president.
Dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen vehemently disagree. “The Congress has a history. Where will it go? It will come up again. Only the Congress can give good governance. Ask any SC/ST or even businessmen,” said former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
The truth may lie somewhere between these two poles as the road ahead for both parties is full of uncertainty.
The Congress Conundrum
In 2007, Rahul Gandhi attributed the loss the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections to “organisational weakness”. After spectacular gains in the state in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, he made a valiant effort to carry the momentum in 2012 UP assembly elections, but failed. The Amethi MP again attributed it to a “weak organisation” again. In December 2013, when the party was routed in Delhi assembly elections, he vowed to “transform” the organisation “in ways you can’t imagine”. In May 2014, after the debacle in Lok Sabha elections, he, accompanied by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, came out to accept the people’s verdict and said that there was “a lot for us to think about”. He asked all senior leaders to submit a report on the road ahead by February 2015. They did but still await a response. Small wonder that quibbles about leadership start after every electoral loss, though in hushed tones.
“The Congress has tied itself to one single family and finds it difficult to extricate itself. The Congress is an important party and I still think it has a future. We need a secular party like the Congress that stands for national unity, which, I think, the BJP doesn’t. But, the family has run out of steam. I agree with Mamata Banerjee that Rahul is the BJP’s greatest asset,” says eminent sociologist Andre Beteille.
Congress leaders don’t share this view though. “They (Gandhi family) are the uniting force. This family has made sacrifices for the country before Independence and after it,” says Bhupinder Hooda.
Rahul’s close aide Jitendra Singh says, “Have we forgotten that it was under his leadership and hard work that the UPA retained power in 2009. His efforts to bring all regional parties together in Bihar also paid off. You can’t blame one individual for every election. Not that we have done badly. We made improvements in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.”
Other Congress leaders echo similar sentiments even as they rue the rapid decline of their core support base among Dalits, Muslims and tribals. Upper castes have already switched their loyalty to the BJP and other parties.
“The Congress is not getting its act together. We haven’t seen anything happening in the party for the past two years. The question is whether Rahul Gandhi has got a free hand or there are too many senior leaders creating roadblocks. In Assam, there was a split in Muslim votes (indigenous Muslims, as against Bengali Muslims, going with the BJP). Muslims didn’t vote for the Congress in West Bengal either. You lose the Hindu vote, you lose the Muslim vote. It’s a big worry,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar.
Watch: Political editor Vinod Sharma analyses the 2016 Assembly polls
There is also mounting suspense about Rahul’s elevation, an issue that has kept the party preoccupied. Unsure about their standing in the party if and when there is an organisational reshuffle, senior party leaders dropped the anchor long back to wait and watch, but there is no word coming from 10, Janpath.
A former chief minister of a western state is of the view that Rahul Gandhi needs to “emerge as a leader” by taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi inside and outside Parliament on serious issues. “If the Congress has to come back, Rahul needs to be taken seriously by the people. He has to stand in the Lok Sabha and speak on the country’s budget or the foreign policy fiasco in Nepal or some other serious issue for an hour or 40 minutes. Right now, it’s hit-and-run approach,” says the senior Congress leader.
Congress sources said that Rahul has had to change his style. “When Himanta Biswa Sarma came to meet him to complain against the Assam CM, Rahul ignored his pleas. See what happened. He has been treating other detractors similarly. Besides, everybody complains that he does not meet them. This is alienating party workers,” said a senior Congress functionary.
Professor AR Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies ascribes the deep crisis the Congress to its inability to decide what it stands for and stand by it. Earlier, it stood for inclusive polity that was secular and yet accommodative of fringe groups of all denominations, “more like a railway platform”, and yet maintained a control over them. According to him, earlier there was something commonly called as Congress consensus, which is now broken. “You cannot hang Afzal and then stand with those protesting against it in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Its doublespeak will not help it at all, anywhere in India,” says Venkatachalapathy.
Union minister Nitin Gadkari also has advice for the Congress. “The new generation that is on social media is very cautious, very sensitive. They want innovation, development, Digital India, Make in India, skill development, technical education… you can’t say that since you have voted for Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi, so now vote for Rahul Gandhi… He (Rahul) is surrounded by such people who are working to push him down a ditch. Whoever are his advisors, they are not connected to the grassroots,” the minister tells HT.
The road ahead for the BJP
The ruling party’s success in the latest round of assembly polls has set the stage for crucial assembly polls in seven states next year. It could probably be the semi-final before 2019 final for the NDA government, which will have completed close to three years of its tenure by then. The BJP has high stakes in UP, which sent 71 party MPs to the Lok Sabha in 2014, and in Gujarat, Modi’s home state that has remained impregnable to the opposition’s attacks for the past 18 years. Out of the seven states going to polls next year, three - Manipur, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh - are Congress-ruled. The BJP will strive to maintain its winning streak next year and limit the Congress’ reign to three states and a Union Territory.
The choice of Keshav Prasad Maurya, a Kushwaha, as Uttar Pradesh BJP president, gave a glimpse of the party’s strategy in the state. Kushwahas are estimated to constitute around 8 per cent of the state population. Maurya is central to the party’s strategy to wean OBCs away from regional outfits. Associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Maurya is also seen as an ideal candidate to make the right pitch for hardcore Hindu voters. The BJP would hope to replicate the Assam model in UP and other states as well. In Assam, its anti-immigrant (read, Bangladeshi Muslims) plank was said to be instrumental in polarising voters on communal lines. A similar approach is attributed by political adversaries to the considerable increase in the BJP’s voteshare in Kerala.
Manoj Dixit, Professor and Head, Department of Public Administration, Lucknow University, says, “The Modi factor has not diminished and remains more or less intact. Caste alignment will not be so important as all parties will play the same game. A united opposition, like the one in Bihar, alone can defeat the BJP. But it is nearly impossible to have a united front of opposition parties including the SP and the BSP.”
According to a BSP MP, “Behan Mayawati” has been “silently digging the grave” for other parties in UP. “The BJP will return to its divisive agenda but we are prepared for it,” said the BSP leader who chose anonymity without “Behanji’s authorisation”. SP leaders remain equally confident about their return to power. The ruling party in the state won byelections for two seats last Thursday. As it is, every player fancies a chance in the political sweepstakes in UP, but the BJP has got the momentum to back its claim.
In Gujarat, the Anandiben Patel government is said to be on a sticky wicket with the Patel community on the warpath over quota demands. Even with Modi at the helm in the state, the Congress put up a strong fight in past elections. The opposition party now senses a chance to oust the BJP from power, which, it believes, would send a strong signal across the country.
What’s in store in 2019
The BJP may seem to be on a roll dethroning the Congress from one state after another, but there might be many roadblocks ahead. Behind the ruling party’s success is also the anti-incumbency factor against the Congress that has been a common feature in BJP’s triumphant march at the Centre and in states, including Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir. Congress broke away from the ruling alliance a few months before elections in Jharkhand. The same anti-incumbency factor prevailed in Assam and Kerala. The Congress will face the same in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur in 2017 and in Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram in 2018.
Anti-incumbency will start factoring in BJP-ruled states- in Gujarat, Punjab & Goa in 2017 and in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018. Shivraj Singh government in MP and the Raman Singh government have got three consecutive terms and will face strong anti-incumbency, as will Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje. In 2014, the BJP won all 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan, 27 of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, and 10 of 11 in Chhattisgarh. Given that these states go to poll in 2018, the results might have a bearing on the parliamentary polls as well.
“The Congress’ defeat in Assam and Kerala was no big deal. There was 15 years of anti-incumbency in Assam and in Kerala, the government was scandal-hit as well. The BJP reached a peak in 2014; only decline is possible from there,” says Palshikar.
Political observers feel the Modi wave that helped the BJP sweep the 2014 elections might not be strong enough in 2019. For instance, it will be a tall ask for the BJP to repeat its 2014 feat in UP, notching up 71 of 80 seats (excluding two seats to ally Apna Dal) in the state. BJP leaders such as Sunil Shastri, however, see Modi’s appeal rising in coming years. “Just like the country responded to my father’s (the late Lal Bahadur Shastri’s) appeal to skip a meal, people are responding to Modiji’s appeal to give up LPG subsidies. It is touching people,” he says.
(Inputs from correspondents in Chennai and Lucknow)