‘Polling less than 20% votes and winning just 44 seats in last polls, Congress today is a shadow of its former self.’


Researcher, author and historian Mahesh Rangarajan talked about the state of Indian politics ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Excerpts:

Q: Less than a year is left for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If you take a panoramic view of Indian politics, how does it look like?

A: We see a government that had won a clear majority first time in 30 years—BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi got a clear majority in Lok Sabha with 283 seats. And the change is that there is a sense of energy in the opposition. It began perhaps with the campaign of the Congress in Gujarat. The lead of BJP came down and it could not touch the three figure mark in the state Assembly for the first time since the 1990s. The Congress and the Deve Gowda-led JDS could come together in Karnataka for the first time since the fall of the United Front government in 1997. Furthermore, after the results of the by-election in various states—most importantly in the Hindi belt—there seems to be a sense of purpose in the Opposition to sink their differences and try and put up common candidates in various seats. So we have a cohesive government, still led by a strong Prime Minister who is natural at campaigns, but we also have an Opposition which seems to be gathering some momentum.

Q: In the past after 1977, 1989, people have seen a united Opposition. And these Opposition leaders are right now posturing; it’s not their final intent.

A: In 1977, besides the fact that there was anger and anguish at the excesses of Emergency, particularly in north western, eastern and central India, there was a very significant figure in our political history who was able to unify the Opposition forces, Jaiprakash Narayan. In 1989, after almost a decade of Congress rule there was a similar figure in V.P. Singh who was able to unify the opposition parties. There is no such figure today. However, there is one significant difference, in both the cases the opposition was against the Congress party, led by Indira Gandhi in one case and by Rajiv Gandhi in the other. Here it is an opposition to the BJP government. It is an NDA government, but effectively it is a BJP government. This is a new situation. There is no unifying charismatic figure like JP, or the significant experience of V.P. Singh.

Q: But is there any evidence, so far, that this anti BJP coalition will be strong enough to take on Modi?

A: It is premature to assess the strength of the opposition right now. What one can say is that it has gained momentum and it is engaged in very serious talks for unity. The most significant opponent of the BJP is Congress. After winning 44 seats and for the first time polling less than 20% of the popular vote in the Lok Sabha elections, Congress today is a shadow of its former self. But it is this that makes it a more serious opponent. Let me explain, in the 2014 elections, there is a very important paper by Sreedharan and Farooqui, where they have shown that for the first time since 1952 Congress has not come first or second in around 320 seats in the Lok Sabha. That means it is going to fight only 200-250 seats on its own strength. This paradoxically means that it is easier for Congress to seek the leadership role to other parties by offering those 320 seats. If you look at many key states, congress has played the role of a junior partner. The first such state was Tamil Nadu and was as long ago as 1971. But today you would like to add states such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Now, because of the kind of alliances that it has struck in Maharashtra and Karnataka, and the possibility that this alliance structure might be extended to other states, Congress might be looking at a new kind of arrangement, with a greater number of regional political parties on its side than ever before in its history. This is a challenge for the Congress, how it will manage this, but it is also a challenge for the ruling party.

Q: I have a counter argument. It’s more likely that it will be BJP versus regional parties and not BJP versus Congress. So your analysis may not hold ground.

A: I said Congress will not fight some 300 seats of the Lok Sabha as a serious player. The serious players will be other political parties, all of which are effectively regional parties. The question is can this kind of an alliance take on the BJP and the NDA? The issue is not of the alliances of the opposition. The issue is of the experience of coalition governments of the last 25 years and here the argument will be exploited to its full hilt by Prime Minister and his party.

There have been two kinds of coalitions since 1989. In one kind of coalition, a large party plays a subsidiary role. It supports the coalition, it props up a coalition, and the smaller parties set up a coalition. But the larger party then withdraws support when it is opportune. Congress has done this, but then Janata Dal was not very cohesive entity and the BJP also did it with the V.P. Singh government. The other model is that the large party anchors the government, it provides the core of stability. And the first person who was able to do this in a democracy was Atal Behari Vajpayee—the first person in our history to head a coalition government successfully for five years. The second of course was Dr Manmohan Singh. Both ran coalition governments, anchored by a large party which was able to give it the cohesion it needed. The possible strategy of the ruling party, this may change, will be Mr Modi and BJP will provide a core for the coalition and stability for the country. So do you prefer a coalition of many parties or a coalition built around one strong party?

Q: Don’t you think that the 2014 election was a unique election where quintessentially Indian voters voted for a personality? Do you think the importance of personality will prevail and the fight will be Modi versus Rahul Gandhi? Or, will it be Modi versus khichdi? That perception may help Modi.

A: We should not try to predict what will happen. It is possible that any of these two outcomes will be there. In 1971, when Indira Gandhi took on the grand alliance and the syndicate, she was asked by a veteran Western journalist, what is the issue? The late Inder Malhotra quoted her as saying, “I am the issue.” There is no doubt about Modi’s strategy and I think after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress has done better in elections when it has emphasised issues. The BJP, over the last 20 years, has put up two icons, one was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and the other was Narendra Modi in 2014. Having said that, I would come back to the fact that vote of 2014 was a rejection of the UPA; it was seen as a government that had failed. It was also seen as an endorsement of Modi, who was seen as a safe pair of hands, a successful three-time Chief Minister of Gujarat, who had projected a new model of leadership. The BJP will define the elections and try to define the terms to make it a quasi-presidential election. But the way Opposition will try to define it around issues.

Q: Will 2019 be more like the 1971 election?

A: When we now look at the 1971 election, we are able to see that Mrs Gandhi was able to set the agenda from around the time of the Congress split in 1969. There were three important steps that were taken. One was the abolition of the privy purses, second was bank nationalisation and the third was to enter into a set of alliances within and beyond the Congress party, with a group, with new ideas, so-called young turks—there was Chandrashekhar among them. Beyond the Congress, there was the CPI and very crucially with a very important regional party whose strength was not appreciated outside the state, was the DMK in Tamil Nadu. So the political terrain was set up in a certain way when Mrs Gandhi, even though she was the PM, looked like the harbinger of change, against the established forces of the status quo. So we have to ask ourselves whether any other PM after that, a reigning PM, a PM who is completing a five-year tenure, has been able to capture that kind of imagination. That is the kind of bar that the planners in the ruling party or their sympathisers will be looking at.

Q: I need your help in decodifying a statement that is often heard in Delhi and even outside Delhi. The narrative goes that the BJP is not faring well, economy is not doing well, BJP will find it difficult to get the same number of seats in Rajasthan, MP, UP and Gujarat, but Prime Minister Modi is faring well, he remains the strength of the party and the government both. Do you agree?

A: I see one of the reasons why people have this view as a valid one. There is no doubt that there has been no political figure perhaps after Indira Gandhi who has been so central to the political discourse across such a large part of India, as Mr Modi. Cutting across different regions and to an extent overriding the differences of caste, communities and class, he has emerged as a communicator and a leader who conveys a sense of energy, complete dedication to his job, and who is always trying to do what is the traditional role of the PM in a parliamentary system. Not simply first among equals, not leader of the Cabinet, but what emerged in the first party under Jawaharlal Nehru—the PM is the pivot of the political system, he or she sets the political agenda. So there is no doubt at all, in a general election, he will be a formidable opponent…Having said that, I think the politics of social coalition will be a challenge for BJP in North India, not that much for resurgent Congress.

Q: How will Congress fare if it is a Modi versus Rahul pitch?

A: The (electoral) campaign in any system begins with the advantage to the incumbent. It is only when the campaign unfolds that we will get to know whether the incumbent is weaker. I will go back to the guru of psephology, Prof David Butler, he said if people are dissatisfied it doesn’t mean the government is going to lose. If people are dissatisfied and angry, it still doesn’t mean the government is going to lose. But if people are dissatisfied and they think it is time to throw the government out, then it will lose. Now we do not know if we have come to that point.

Q: Politically speaking, what went wrong for the Modi government?

A: It is a very difficult question. Expectations. I will quote the leader who won a majority in Lok Sabha under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi. When he was asked what can go wrong, he said, “People’s expectations are scary.” They are even scarier now. We live in an age of incredible communications, very well-spread awareness—a person sitting in a remote village of Chhattisgarh knows the price of chilli in the rest of the world. The dairy farmers in Bardoli know what is happening in the dairy politics of America. The expectations were really high. And if people feel that he and his government have honestly tried to meet their expectations, then he remains a formidable protagonist.

Q: Who is more likely to be presented as a leader of the proposed Mahagathabanhan?

A: Frankly, no one can or should predict at this moment.

Q: Most analysts cannot foresee a coalition in UP because it means that the Congress will get around 10 seats and BSP and SP will individually get not more than 40 seats. Do you think big regional parties, in such a high stake game, would accept 40 seats even before elections?

A: What you are posing is a challenge for the entire Opposition. But most crucially for the Congress party. Can the Congress, fighting about 40-45% of the seats, come to a realisation that it has to play a very different kind of role, bringing together political parties not only for the sole purpose of defeating the government, but also to provide some form of serious coordination and structure which can resolve their fairly significant differences? These are significant differences of interest and not just of personality. We don’t know. I think there was a serious challenge for Sonia Gandhi in 2004 to come to terms with the fact that the Congress has to lead a coalition. Present Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s challenge is more complex. It is that even though his party is fighting for survival, can it still remain in centre when he has to coordinate with people with roots in their regional bastions and with far greater experience of coalition government? We do not know.

Q: In the last four years, how do you look at the growth of BJP under Amit Shah? What are some of the profound changes in Indian politics in last four years?

A: I think this period is new organisationally for BJP for two reasons. It has really attempted to grow regionally. There are no no-go-areas for this party. Even in states in parts of Northeast, southern India. Second, there has been an extremely serious attempt, far more strategically and energetically than even in the early period of L.K. Advani’s presidentship around 1986 and after, to expand the social base of BJP, among Dalits, OBCs and STs. Both are significant changes. And when a politician goes and works among the people, it will have implications in the long term, not only for the party, not only for the people associated with it, but for the larger political system. So there is no doubt at all that Amit Shah (under PM Modi’s game plan for the party) has infused a sense of energy and direction to the party. Whatever its implications in 2019, it will have its consequences for the party in the future.

Q: Do you think that in the 2019 elections, Hindutva will play a big role?

A: It will play a role. How large, depends on the campaign and on how the Opposition handles the issue. We should not forget that in 2014, the general economy slowed down, the growth rate fell. It was a major factor in the defeat of the Manmohan Singh government, much bigger than we thought. So economy will be a major issue, the style of governance and of course Hindutva will also matter.

Q: Do you think that people who support PM Modi can be hopeful of his return to power?

A: The answer will be given by the electorate in May 2019. We should not forget that there is a commonality between Mr Narendra Modi and Dr Manmohan Singh that both have come from virtually nowhere. If you read their lives, they are remarkably similar. They have studied in government schools and come up the hard way. One went on to study and get a distinction in economics and the other went on to be a political worker. Whether the people support him or not they should be hopeful that the political system will throw up a viable answer.

Q: Do you see 2019 as a widely and wildly open game?

A: We will always fall back on history. There have been 15 general elections—seven times the ruling party has lost, eight times it has won. Who knows what will happen?