View: Why the opposition should not be overwhelmed by its assembly wins
Yet, the election results show that BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are no longer the unstoppable juggernaut marauding across rival terrain they had seemed, post 2014.
Yet, the election results show that BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are no longer the unstoppable juggernaut marauding across rival terrain they had seemed, post 2014. The prime minister had crafted an aura of invincibility, despite the defeats in Delhi, Bihar, Punjab and Karnataka, and the near-death experience in Gujarat itself. That aura now joins the flotsam on the still dirty Ganga.
The Congress performance in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, besides Chandrababu Naidu’s perspicacity manifest in his acceptance of Congress leadership of a combined Opposition, leaves no room for doubt as to who will lead the charge against BJP. Parties like BSP now have less room to waffle on teaming up with a Congress-led combine: placing all bets on a BJP victory in 2019 could end up in the very same CBI-Enforcement Directorate crackdown they seek to avoid by splitting the Opposition.
TRS in Telangana and Mizo National Front in Mizoram have won handsomely. This shows that regional parties are still salient, and will be wooed by national parties as allies. Only Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP stands exposed — it has been revealed to be weak in Telangana and might face challenge from Congress in Andhra.
Coming as it does in the wake of Urjit Patel’s sudden resignation as RBI governor, the assembly election results add credence to the Opposition charge that BJP is incapable of providing good governance. The press conference by Supreme Court judges in January to declare that democracy is in danger and the partisan warfare within the CBI testify to institutional erosion under the present government.
How will BJP respond to this patch of adversity? Allies have already started to criticise the party and will bargain hard for concessions in the 2019 elections. Mutterings against the Modi-Shah leadership have already started within BJP. Will Modi-Shah adjust their programme to accommodate inner-party and intra-alliance dissent? Unlikely. To double down would be in keeping with their style.
Since growth at a pace that would give unemployed youth jobs, every unlit home electric lighting and every village an agro-processing enterprise are unlikely before the elections, we should expect doles, such as farm loan waivers —the extra contribution to the pension kitty of civil servants announced recently is a foretaste —and aggressive Hindutva politics.
Congress is yet to come up with a well-thought-out plan to counter BJP. So far, they have been banking on popular anger against lapses by BJP governments. BJP governments have been kind and forthcoming, so far.
But Congress is constrained in two ways. One, it has a new party president, who thinks it vital to put the old guard to pasture, leaving greenhorns manning key posts. Two, its attempt to prove that it is not a Muslim party by embracing the ritualism of Hinduism could alienate non-Hindus and the communities described as ritually lower castes within the Hindu fold.
Rahul’s penchant for bringing in new blood nearly cost the Congress Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The party’s most popular leader in MP is Digvijaya Singh, one of Congress’ few central leaders who command grassroots-level support in at least one state. He did not figure in Rahul Gandhi’s reconstituted Working Committee. He was kept out of selecting candidates in Madhya Pradesh — till Sonia Gandhi, sensing this could lead to a rout in the assembly elections, intervened and roped in Singh.
In Rajasthan, there is little doubt as to who is the leader with a mass following. But Rahul Gandhi gave the impression that he favoured Young Turk Sachin Pilot for chief minister. The simmering discontent this gave rise to within the Rajasthan unit of the party must be blamed for the narrow margin Congress has achieved over BJP in that state.
New leaders have to prove their mettle in day-to-day political activity on the ground. Leaders cannot drop down from the sky just because the High Command wants it like that. This does not occur naturally to Rahul Gandhi, given how he came to lead his party. But unless he learns to trust, deploy and utilise the party’s most valuable resources — its entrenched leaders in the states — upstart leaders would not have the opportunity to crave a spoon-fed change of stature.
But if Gandhi can learn from his mistakes, things can be very different. After all, it is a short drive from Jaipur to Lutyens Delhi.