Even though a thoroughly dejected Opposition has good reason to lie low and nurse its wounds, it is unlikely that it will learn any lessons from its near-total rejection. The Congress won Punjab in spite of Rahul Gandhi and not because of him. Captain Amarinder Singh threatened to quit before being given a free hand. Till a few days before the actual polling, Rahul Gandhi, the Great Helmsman of the Congress, would not even name him as party’s chief ministerial candidate. Anyway, given the unpopularity of the Akalis, the Congress win is no surprise.
Before we return to the larger takeaways from the poll, a word about the AAP. The voter in Punjab and Goa has rejected its claim to be superior to the existing parties. The publicity and propaganda overkill, underwritten by the Delhi taxpayers, seems to have proven counterproductive. People do not like the mindless politics of disruption and confrontation. Without something concrete to show on the ground in Delhi in the last two years it has been in power, Kerjiwal could not have won Punjab and Goa on sheer media hype. His expensive aam aadmi act on TV now evokes derision, if not revulsion.
Mayawati is another casualty of the poll. Instead of smelling mischief in the ballot boxes, the BSP boss ought to reconsider that politics of money power superimposed on a shaky Jatav-Muslim edifice has severe limitations. Dalit and Muslim women too fire their chullahs with the same subsidised cooking gas cylinders that the Modi government has made available to nearly a crore of poor households across the state. Identity politics yields diminishing returns when the targeted caste and community voters aspire for the same basic goods and services available to the relatively well-off sections. Aspiration is not caste-or community-specific.
A bigger takeaway is the leadership crisis in the Congress. The courtiers will try to gloss over the rebuff to Rahul Gandhi in UP and Uttarakhand, but the truth is that the designated heir apparent of the Gandhi family lacks both basic leadership skills and charisma. At most well-attended rallies of “UP ke Ladke” (UP’s sons), people used to walk when Akhilesh finished speaking and Rahul got up to speak. Why should the junior partner have got top billing on the public platform is unclear, even if Rahul claimed to be a national leader while Akhilesh was supposed to be a mere one-state leader.
It is important for the Congress revival that the Gandhis release their vice-like grip on the party, especially when no one in the second and third ranks has the courage to bell the cat, as it were, having been so used to the Pavlovian spine-bending act that they all seem to have lost their spines. However, a party leadership completely devoid of imagination, which has thrown up no new idea, no new programme, a leadership which rewards sycophancy rather than performance at the ground level, a leadership with a crumbling organisational structure. Well, such a party has a bleak future. The Congress courts slow death, sooner than the Gandhi family courtiers might like to imagine.
Yet, it is in everyone’s interest that the Congress survives. Under Modi, the BJP might be expanding its footprint far and wide, but without the Congress there is the danger of regional parties, with their narrow visions and local agendas, muddying the national perspective. Imposing rival and often antagonistic regional worldviews on the broader national mission is certain to act as a drag on progress. For the smooth functioning of the democratic system we need at least two pan-India parties with distinctive socio-economic programmes and worldviews. The right-of-the centre BJP needs to compete for Indians’ affection with the left-of-the-centre Congress.
The Gandhis should come to terms with the fact that even dynasties, whether political or business, too have their sell-by date. The Birlas and Dalmias no longer rule in the corporate world, their place having been snatched—yes, snatched—by the more enterprising Ambanis and the Adanis or the Mittals and the Munjals. Rarely, if ever, do dynasties prosper for more than three generations. Abhishek Bachchan does not possess even a fraction of the talent of Amitabh Bachchan, easily the most gifted actor of our times.
To put it bluntly, if the Gandhis hold the family heirloom, that is, the Congress dear to them, they would step aside and arrange to hand over its control to a leader chosen in a free and transparent election by the bona-fide members of the party. The Congress still retains pockets of support in every part of the country. It needs to be energised and expanded with the promise of hope by a new leadership. The Gandhis can assume the honorary title of Margdarshak but leave the party well alone, to be run by a democratically elected leadership. This is the only workable recipe for its survival. Nothing else will work.
That brings us to Modi and the BJP. Let us dispose of this odious comparison with Indira Gandhi. Yes, the BJP today is as popular as the Congress under Indira Gandhi was. But the two parties are different in their histories and character. The BJP has the Nagpur link, a safety valve, should a strong BJP leader get authoritarian a la Indira Gandhi. Besides, the top leaders in the BJP are no pushovers unlike their counterparts in the Congress. The Modi-Shah winning jugalbandi might appear all powerful, but it too is aware of the Lakshman Rekha beyond which it will not, cannot, step. There was nobody in the Congress when Indira Gandhi unleashed Sanjay Gandhi against the country or allowed her courtiers to loot the public treasury.
Modi is a “fakir” in the sense that he appears determined to press ahead with what he believes might benefit the people. Even the demonetisation gamble, contrary to Manmohan Singh’s ill-chosen description of it as “loot and plunder” of the public exchequer, has paid off at the ballot box. Coming after a long series of victories at the municipal and panchayat levels, the huge win in UP and Uttarakhand and near-certainty of friendly government formations in Goa and Manipur as well would confirm that Modi is here to stay for a long time.
It will be churlish not to acknowledge the role played by Amit Shah in making the BJP ascendancy possible. A quintessential election specialist, he had been assiduously building the party organisation in UP and other parts, without making much ado in the media. His meticulous social engineering has fully paid up. As they say in the Hindi heartland lingo, never before have we seen such a ground sey juda hua party president. He may have first honed his election management skills as L.K. Advani’s election in-charge in the Gandhinagar parliamentary constituency, since then he has fully graduated to the national level with all the electoral guns blazing. There may not be any stopping the Modi-Shah duo, especially given the state of the Opposition.
Yet, do not expect the Opposition to behave when the Parliament reassembles. For, the Opposition is like that only. It refuses to draw the right lessons from its rejection. Which is such a pity, given that a wider national consensus on broad socio-economic goals can clear the way for faster growth.
We began this column with a Twitter comment from Omar Abdullah. Let us end it with what the net says Digvijaya Singh might be saying after the results on Saturday morning: Arrey, issey to exit poll kay results hi acchhe thay. Amen.