After polls, the challenges

People's verdict: Polls left BJP, TMC and AIADMK jubilant, the Left ambivalent, and the Congress in misery

After polls, the challenges

Besides two powerful women who prevail in the south and the east, the BJP has gained from the just concluded Assembly polls. Interestingly, the party is now in power in the two states with the highest Muslim population in India: Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), where the BJP is in coalition with the PDP, and now Assam, where 34% of the population is Muslim.  

The BJP had put up nine Muslim candidates in seats they never expected to win and to their surprise, one did in the sweep of Assam by the party-led front. A performance exceeding the most optimistic inner party calculations. 

What must also be noted is that the manager of arrangements in both J&K and Assam was party general-secretary Ram Madhav, the former RSS spokesperson. This underscores the fact that on critical projects and strategies, the RSS works very cohesively with the Narendra Modi-led party and government. 

Fundamentally, what should be understood clearly is that the BJP and the RSS are now working as one entity to expand the party geographically. At the same time, the Modi government would not like “extremists” from the larger Sangh Parivar to disturb its “development” narrative. 

Indeed, it was actually the BJP leaders themselves, Prime Minister Modi and party president Amit Shah included, who raised certain divisive issues during the Bihar campaign last year. That strategy boomeranged. The Assam campaign was therefore calibrated very differently: propping up local faces, not encouraging cadres to talk about “holy cow” and “Bharat Mata” etc. 

Galling is the fact that tactical errors were made by the Congress in the run up to the polls. First, the manner in which the BJP’s latest star Hemanta Biswa Sarma was treated by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi appears to have contributed to his departure from the Congress in Assam (where he was Tarun Gogoi’s right hand) to become the main tactician of the BJP strategy in the state. Many people in Guwahati believe that had Hemanta not joined the BJP, the state unit was incapable of honing the various alliances and nuances of the campaign. 

In hindsight, it appears that Congress’ another error was made in spurning Mamata Banerjee’s wish for an alliance in favour of a tie-up with the Left. The consequences will be felt in the arena of national politics when Mamata could choose not to cooperate with national strategies promoted by the Congress. 

Beyond tactics, however, is the larger existential crisis facing the Congress.

 Eventually, the party believes that misgovernance by the BJP in states like Maharashtra and Haryana would resurrect them. But elections to these states are way after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and politics abhors vacuums so there’s no knowing when alternative forces appear. For instance, Punjab has elections next year and under normal circumstances, the Congress would have been the alternative to the Akali Dal-BJP government. But it seems like the Aam Aadmi Party is coming up from the ground like a mighty force. 

The other big 2017 election is in Uttar Pradesh, but the Congress, at present, is the fourth force there after the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BJP. It’s also unclear whether the BSP or the SP would seek to tie-up with them after these Assembly polls revealed that the Congress may have actually dragged down the DMK in Tamil Nadu. That’s been the other impact of these elections. 

In any national gathering of regional players, the Congress currently looks like it would have to be the tail of an arrangement. Indeed, these polls have also served to take the steam out of initiatives such as those launched by Nitish Kumar to put together all secular and democratic forces, partly because the Congress has lost face and also because the contradictions of the Left and some significant regional forces have been highlighted. 

As for the Congress, it’s only in 2018 that the party would be electorally tested in the three Assembly polls of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where it should logically have a chance. In the first two states, the BJP regimes would be facing anti-incumbency of 15 years (as Tarun Gogoi was in Assam). 

At this point, the Congress has revealed no leader in any of these states around whom the campaign can be built. It’s got no shortage of mighty figures like Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, but they have rarely pulled together. In Chhattisgarh, too, the Congress state unit says that Ajit Jogi is still playing games to undermine any other natural leadership from taking charge. 

In Rajasthan, there is actually some promise in the fact that the young Sachin Pilot has actually chosen to shift to Jaipur to ready the party for battle. He has faced resistance from the Congress old guard but has also had good results. That’s the sort of model the Congress should follow as resurrection can only come from the states. 

Sadly, many significant Congress leaders do not engage with building mass bases any longer and just do their politicking as gatekeepers to the first family. That’s a job which is increasingly looking pointless as even rewards in the form of Rajya Sabha seats will from now on be hard to come by. 

The 2019 contest
The question now is what tone would the Congress set for the mega campaign in Uttar Pradesh (UP) that will actually create the chemistry for the 2019 general election. In the run-up to Modi’s spectacular 2014 showing in UP, there were clear communal cleavages fanned by party and parivar after the Muzaffarnagar riots.

Subsequently, there was a sustained campaign in western UP run by cadres on the issue of “Love Jihad” and even the Ram temple issue has been flagged. The Dadri lynching incident also took place in the state. 

It’s hard to imagine the Hindutva lot in the BJP in UP running an enlightened campaign or giving up the Hindutva hardline pitch. All the same, Modi would like everything to be camouflaged in the garb of development and strong leadership. The win in Assam would certainly add conviction to the BJP’s pitch for UP. The advantage of a government at the Centre plus loads of cash and cadre must always be factored in. 

The Congress conversely has no current assets beyond Karnataka – which goes to polls in 2018 – and governments in a few picturesque places like Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur. A dynasty led party that rides on sentiment is severely hampered by the fact that the projected leader, Rahul Gandhi, simply does not seem to have the ability to connect with the masses. 

The Rahul projection comes at a time when there are ambitious leaders making their mark, including Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee, who was quite charming in her utterances after winning a second term and made intriguing suggestions about forging unity with other parties.

(The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi)

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