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Congress-Mukt Bharat

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the peak of Mount Everest in 1953, they realised that they could no longer climb up. They could only climb down. That is also true about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw him reaching the zenith of his popularity. Never before had the Bharatiya Janata Party won so many seats and so many votes as in that election.

The flip side of the victory was that it was almost impossible for him to repeat the 2014 performance. Take the just-concluded elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. It may appear outlandish that the only party which was unable to maintain the 2014 performance is the BJP. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the party was unable to maintain the 2014 lead. Let me hasten to add, Manipur is the only state where the party did better than in 2014.

Of course, this is not to underestimate the spectacular performance of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh which is comparable to Brazil in terms of population but whose economy is comparable to the state of Qatar, which has a population of just two millions. Nobody -- not even the BJP leaders -- had expected such a big win in UP. The credit should go entirely to Modi, who made the campaign a Modi-verses-other-parties affair. He did not allow anyone to be projected as the party's chief ministerial candidate. He is now in the unenviable position of choosing any Tom, Dick and Harry as the next chief minister. The party has no option but to accept his nominee as it did in Haryana and Maharashtra earlier. He could be anyone from the Lucknow Mayor to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

What gives him this power was his ability to transform the election into an election for or against Modi. He tried the trick in Bihar but he lost there primarily because Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar had the foresight to join hands to take on Modi. Their strategy was to prevent the splitting of anti-BJP votes. In Uttar Pradesh such a thought did not occur to Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati who vertically split the anti-BJP votes benefitting the BJP. If the BSP had joined hands with the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, the combine could have stopped the BJP from enjoying a landslide victory. Alas, ifs and buts do not play much role in politics.

Modi should be given the credit for his victory. A senior journalist who travelled extensively in UP had one thing to tell me. He said that Modi's victory would be dependent on how much he was able to polarise the voters. It was not something creditworthy for the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world. Modi and his Sancho Panza succeeded in polarising voters. For instance, his comment that the Akhilesh Yadav government provided land for burials but not for cremations and electricity for Id but not for Diwali had its desired effect. He was also able to convince the voters that the demonetisation harmed the interests of the black-monied, rather than the poor. Who said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time"?

There were many who believed that the BJP had gone in for demonetisation mainly to deprive its rivals of the advantages of black money in the UP elections. The strategy seemed to have worked. The BJP did not suffer from any shortage of money. It had a well-oiled election machinery, compared to the other parties. Anti-incumbency was a factor that played against the Samajwadi Party. In the 2012 elections, Akhilesh Yadav's smartness and youthfulness were critical factors but his five years of rule did not at all enthuse the voters. He allowed the first few years to be a plaything in the hands of his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and his henchmen.

The young Yadav was not given much freedom by the SP supremo. He was constantly needled by his father, even as criminals and goondas ruled the roost even in the towns. By the time he realised that it was time to call his father's bluff, much water had flowed down the Sarayu river. Needless to say, the father-son fight did not show the SP in a good light. The people would have thought why they should vote for a party which could not keep its own house in order when they had an alternative in the BJP where no dissidence was tolerated. Akhilesh Yadav's hope that the Congress would bring the much-needed Muslim votes was misplaced.

The Muslims trusted the Congress only if they had no other alternative. It is now nearly two and a half decades since the Muslims in UP moved away from the Congress in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. They are yet to return to the party fold. Akhilesh Yadav also did not have much to show off as his government's achievements. He merely wasted his five years in fighting his father and uncle.

BSP leader Mayawati is the worst victim of the multi-cornered contest. She has been losing her base in the state. She can no longer say that the Dalits are solidly behind her. To win an election, she must have the support of other sections also. She was unable to get the support of the Muslims in the desired manner, though she fielded 100 of them. All she could do was to split the anti-Modi votes. The statues she built of elephants and her own during her regime continued to haunt her. There was no evidence that she had a plan of her own to provide good governance. Even when she spoke about ushering in development, people laughed at her.

True, the Congress did slightly better than the 2014 elections but it remains relevant only in some pockets of the state. Rahul Gandhi proved to be a damp squib. His sister Priyanka Gandhi was no great shake either. To put it differently, the party did not inspire confidence.

Now the question is whether the SP suffered because of its alliance with the Congress or the Congress suffered because of its alliance with the SP. Whatever be the answer, there can be no denying that the BJP has succeeded in portraying Rahul as a joker who inspires laughter, rather than confidence. Unfortunately for the party, young Gandhi has not been able to come out of the corner to which the BJP has pushed him. The party will have to find a new leader or Gandhi will have to reinvent himself as someone who can square up to Modi.

In Uttarakhand, the Congress could have gone to town explaining how the BJP had played with the Constitution to prevent it from doing its job. Alas, it allowed the BJP to play the lead role in the elections. Probably, it did not have much to claim as its achievements. The defeat the Chief Minister suffered was in itself proof that the party was no longer the hope of the people. Anti-incumbency was not something the Congress could overcome by pointing out the extra-legislative attempts the BJP made to send the Congress government packing. In the ultimate analysis, people judge a party also by its performance. The BJP's campaign that the Congress fostered only corruption had many takers. One thing needs to be noted, the BJP could not retain the support it received in the Lok Sabha elections, though it won a clear majority in God's own land.

Anti-incumbency favoured the Congress in Punjab. Many had expected the Aam Aadmi Party to do well in the state but Arvind Kejriwal's failure to inspire confidence did the party in. The party went to polls without a clear idea of who would lead the government in case it was elected to rule. The joke in the state was that Kejriwal would be sworn in as Chief Minister and he would rule both Delhi and Punjab by shuttling between Chandigarh and Delhi every other day. The joke did not go well with the people who chose to vote for the trusted and tried Congress.

Captain Amarinder Singh proved the victor. He should have been in the saddle when the state went to polls in 2012 because it has a tradition of voting for the Akali Dal and the Congress in alternate elections. The Congress would have done well last time but for the negative role played by the dissidents. Also, in 2012 the BJP did much better than the Akali Dal. The combine was able to change the pattern and return to power. Instead of treating the opportunity as a Godsend to serve the people, the two-party alliance used it to feather their own nests. The people were fed up with the father-son duo not only ruling the roost but also trying to dominate every field of human activity.

The state has its own transport corporation but it was the Badals' buses that plied on inter-state routes. The government invited foreign direct investment in the state while the Badals built their own luxury hotel, not in Patiala or Amritsar but in Gurugram near Delhi. They had their own television channel all of which disenchanted the people. Naturally enough, the people were able to see through their game and they voted massively against the father-son combine which also had Mrs Sukhbir Badal as a minister in the Modi government. The Captain was able to retain his hold on the state. The Congress victory is more Amarinder Singh's as the BJP's victory in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh is Modi's.

Anti-incumbency was at the root of the BJP's failure to retain Goa. When it came to power on its own in 2012 it was considered a major achievement. Catholics came out en mass to support the party but somewhere it lost its connect with the ordinary people. Modi played a destabilising role when he shifted Manohar Parrikar to the Centre. He probably did not want a young successful Chief Minister who could pose a threat to him in the future. The elections prove that it was a suicidal move. The people were not convinced by whatever rationale Modi had for shifting Parrikar. The defeat of the incumbent chief minister is proof that the gamble did not pay off.

While the Congress has reason to feel happy about the success in Goa where it emerged as the single largest party, it will have to do a lot of tight-rope walking if it has to form a government with the support of non-BJP parties. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out. There have been cases in which governments formed with outside support did much better than governments enjoying a steamroller majority. In Delhi the AAP has a huge majority in the House but has that helped Kejriwal to perform better? Not at all. A good Opposition will keep the government on its toes. If the BJP decides to form a government using dubious means it will only sound its own death knell.

The Congress could fight anti-incumbency to some extent in Manipur but it was not sufficient to clinch a victory. In the hung Assembly it will have to look for parties or individuals who can help it. True, the BJP has done extremely well winning 21 seats out of 60. It is the only state where the BJP did better than in the 2014 elections. On the whole, the elections prove one thing -- if there are strong leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh, Modi is not unstoppable. While polarisation and splitting of anti-BJP votes in UP helped the BJP, it was able to benefit from the anti-incumbency factor in Uttarakhand and Manipur.

One immediate fallout of the elections is that the BJP will be able to field its own candidate in the forthcoming Presidential election. It will not have to field someone like the late Abdul Kalam. It will also be able to win a sizeable number of seats when the next biennial elections are held to the Rajya Sabha. The defeats the BJP suffered in Punjab and Goa show that the voters cannot be taken for granted. Modi has wasted half his term in going round the world. Instead of lecturing to the nation through  Mann ki Baath, he should concentrate on delivering on the promises he made in 2014 and now. Otherwise, Modiway may become the highway for the BJP.

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at   ajphilip@gmail.com

#(Published on 13th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 11)