BJP exults in UP as Congress lives to fight another day
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can rightfully celebrate its spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh as the vindication of its faith in the leadership of Narendra Modi. However, there is reason to celebrate for the Congress also in its decisive victory in Punjab. It gets another lease on life to fight another day.
The BJP has clearly reinvented itself as a kind of rainbow coalition of castes – albeit one minus the minorities – in UP. Yet communal polarisation (begun only half-way through the polling process) alone cannot possibly explain its massive mandate in UP.
Modi’s ability to forge a direct connect with the masses along with the careful social engineering of various caste groups – Upper Castes, non-Yadav other backward classes, non-Jatav Dalits, extremely backward castes and forging alliances with smaller caste-based parties like Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party – seems to have paid massive dividends to the party.
In a sense, this is a much bigger victory than the party’s performance in the Lok Sabha election of 2014. Local issues and regional parties do not matter very much in the national elections and a charismatic leader can hold sway in terms of broad promises of a bright future.
However, in state polls not only do local issues predominate, so do caste-based regional parties and Independents. Therefore, to come up with a mandate that is as definitive as the one in UP despite the local factors, is a much bigger achievement.
No doubt, the BJP juggernaut will now move on to Gujarat by the end of this year and then to Karnataka next summer. In between there will be elections to the state Assemblies of Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. Leaving aside the Northeastern states, it may well be next to impossible to stop the electoral momentum that the BJP has gained from UP.
However, all is not lost for the Congress after the electoral results of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa.
The electoral outcome in UP did not matter to the Congress’ future. The Congress has not been in power in the state for the last 27 years. And even if it had performed well in partnering with the Samajawadi Party, it would not have gained much as the tail of the alliance. The outcome in UP, therefore, would not have made much difference to its survival as a national political party.
The situation at best may be similar to 1996 when Mayawati gave 125 seats to the Congress in a pre-electoral understanding in an undivided UP Assembly of 425 seats. Congress won very few seats but lost everything in the 300 seats the party did not contest. The same thing may have happened even now when the party did not contest nearly 300 seats in alliance with the SP. So in UP, the party’s condition remains dire with or without an alliance.
The best news for the Congress has come from the decimation of the Aam Adami Party (AAP) in Punjab. That Punjab has rejected the aspiration of the AAP to be a national player seems to be a deliberate and conscious decision of the voters. Otherwise, nothing explains why even in the Malwa region of Punjab, on which AAP was pinning its hopes, the party has come third in terms of vote share. Had AAP won in Punjab, it might have replaced the Congress as a national party in the minds of voters.
The voters in Punjab, therefore, have given the Congress a breather. It has to survive to revive. And now it has that chance.
It is important to note however that this breather is for the Congress party and not for Rahul Gandhi and his performance.
The message to the young Gandhi scion from these election results is three-fold.
He needs to rethink and analyse the ineffectiveness of his performance of the last few years. His party is nowhere because he thinks pre-election walkathons can revive the party. They are in fact just tamashas.
He perhaps cannot site even one example of his party leading any popular agitation on land, water, forests or civic issues in any election-going or non-election going state. New blood and new leadership in democratic parties emerge through popular agitations and movements. Otherwise, you get only dynasts, moneybags and contractors and, possibly, their progeny, in the party because they have the ability to cross the monetary entry barriers to participating in elections.
Rahul Gandhi also needs to revive the institutions within the party. In the absence of vibrant institutions, the party is run and will continue to be run by Delhi-based small coteries and vested interests. Vibrant institutions create stakeholders. That is why the defunct All India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) need to be revived along with empowered state level institutions.
The party also needs to train and educate its workers in its ideology and programmes. It is not sufficient to have convent school-educated youngsters being projected as party spokespersons on TV chat shows.
Today there is a complete drift in the Congress party at the state level. Those who are in-charge of the states often do not know what is happening on the ground. And those who are co-ordinators at the state level have little connect with whatever grassroots workers are left in the party.
Sometimes general secretaries are appointed who have no purchase in their own states. Everything cannot and must not be run from Delhi. Autonomy of action will help the party grow. Also, more often than not there is lack knowledge in Delhi about the states.
Unless the Congress and Rahul Gandhi take these issues head on, the breathing time they have been given to revive themselves because of the Punjab victory would be of no use at all.
The biggest challenge that these election results pose are to the entire non-BJP political Opposition in the country – that is, how to counter the populist narrative of Narendra Modi.
This narrative is a potent combination of four elements: Hindutva ideology, nationalism, aspirational politics, and the projection of a pro-poor programme.
While Hindutva ideology needs to be opposed by all secular elements, nationalism which was handed over on a platter by the Centrist parties to the BJP needs to be re-defined and re-appropriated by them. The Left’s position on nationalism has always been ambiguous because Marxism follows from internationalism.
However, there was no need for parties like the Congress which had been at the forefront of the national struggle in India to let the BJP and its Hindutva allies appropriate national symbols and their ideological underpinnings to forge them into a weapon to bludgeon dissenting citizens with.
Aspirational politics and the projection of the government as pro-poor are issues with limited shelf-life. Sooner than later their truth is exposed – consider for example, how Indira Gandhi was identified with a pro-poor image for a short while. Political slogans without tangible deliverables may work for a while and they can always be countered with an alternative agenda and politics.
The non-BJP parties need to develop their own national agendas so that instead of talking about Modi day in and day out, they can instead be promoting their programmes and policies. Exactly the opposite is happening at present – Modi sets the agenda from demonetization to communalism and others react to it.
Edited by Joyjeet Das