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Is The Congress And The Opposition Losing The plot?

Is The Congress And The Opposition Losing The plot?

It is a time like no other. Never before has India ever seen such a fragmented, disillusioned and dismayed opposition. They are actually giving up the fight without even putting up one. How else will you explain how the Congress did not form a government in Goa and Manipur even though they clearly had more seats than the BJP in the recently concluded assembly polls? Within 48 hours, the BJP managed to stitch together a coalition and pull the rug from under the feet of the Congress that took it for granted that it would ride to power. Politics in India has obviously changed. The BJP is more organized and are smarter with their political games. Very soon we are going to see how Gujarat and Karnataka go to the BJP. By engineering defections in Gujarat, it will fight anti-incumbency. In Karnataka, anti-incumbency will help the BJP as the Congress is mired in infighting and bad governance. The Congress lost an opportunity in showcasing how it was capable of good governance and be a shining example in the midst of a rotting political culture.

In other states, we will soon see Congressmen deserting the sinking ship as they do not see much of a future with Rahul Gandhi heading the party as he is not inspiring any confidence or emerging as an alternative to an overtly aggressive Modi. They fear that the mother-son duo will ultimately destroy one of the largest political parties in the world.

Mamata Banerjee remains a street fighter but again, she cannot be seen as an alternative. She also is too busy trying to maintain her turf in a politically volatile West Bengal where she has been rattled by a resurgent BJP. She can hardly concentrate on a national role. She may have decimated the CPM in her state, but India is not West Bengal. The voters desperately wanted change and she was the only alternative.

Biju Patnaik in Odisha is on a slippery path as the BJP is trying all it can to emerge as a new alternative in Odisha and will soon engineer defections before the state goes to polls. Chandrababu Naidu and Chandrasekhar Rao are busy managing their states and strategizing to win the next polls and so their parties are also nowhere in the national picture. The Samajwadi Party is virtually split with the father and son not seeing eye to eye anymore. The loss in the recent elections has accentuated it all the more, with both accusing each other of torpedoing what could have been a win. The Bahujan Samaj Party under Mayawati has gone into a shell, and with the BJP now pulling in Dalits into their vote bank, her party members know that caste alone cannot help them grab power again. Getting a Dalit to become the President was a masterstroke of Modi, something that even surprised insiders in the BJP like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.

So, when Nitish Kumar resigned and within 24 hours became the chief minister of Bihar again by aligning with the BJP, it was hardly a surprise. He was looking at his chances of survival. He could not see it with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD. He also could not see himself triumphing alone. So, he did what he thought was best in the present circumstances: Join hands with the BJP. Ideology flew out of the window as he did so.  Ironically, he was one of the staunchest critics of Modi and the BJP! At one time, he was even seen as an alternative Prime Minister! When he recently said that there is no challenger to Modi in 2019, there was an element of truth as India has no opposition leader today who can stand up and be counted.

Now, look at what is happening in Gujarat. As expected, there is a lot of churning in the state with assembly polls approaching.  The BJP is taking no chances and is doing all it can to split the Congress vote bank. In panchayat elections held earlier this year, the Congress had shown how it could garner more wins than the BJP. That set off a panic button and the BJP got busy on strategizing how to cut down a seemingly resurgent Congress. One easy way out was to encourage defections. Six of the Congress MLAs quit the party to join the BJP. One of them has been rewarded with a Rajya Sabha ticket hours after he switched over to the BJP. None of the party insiders questioned it despite the fact that it keeps drumming how it is ideologically inclined. How can a hard boiled Congressman be ideologically tuned to the BJP or committed to its philosophy? This was an obvious question, but no one wanted to ask it.  Obviously, it was a signal to those who were sitting on the fence of how they too would not only be welcomed but rewarded sooner or later.

In the last few months, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP strategist Amit Shah have worked overtime to show that there is no anti-incumbency factor at work though the BJP has been in power for three consecutive terms in Gujarat.

At one point last year when the agitation by the well to do Patels demanding reservation picked up in the state, it seemed that the BJP was on slippery ground and might lose the 2017 assembly elections.  But in the last few weeks, there have been dramatic changes that indicate that the BJP is stitching up a new plan to sweep the polls.

It was quite clear to political observers that 77 year old Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela would leave the party soon as there were ominous signs blowing in the wind. While he kept saying that he would not join the BJP, his supporters knew that he had no intention of staying on with the Congress.  Way back in 2013, he had told this writer that the Congress had no future in Gujarat as it was being run by the High Command in Delhi and not by local leaders. He had wanted full control of running the party independently which the Congress leadership in Delhi was not giving him, he had said. He said the same thing in 2017 just before he quit.  Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor Ahmed Patel, who is a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, was in favour of younger leaders like Bharatsinh Solanki.

He had dropped enough hints for the last few months of wanting to be declared as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress, but there was no such move. Vaghela was the only Congress leader with a pan-state appeal and was undoubtedly the lynchpin of the party for many years now. He had both experience as he has been a chief minister before and also had grassroot support. His moves on social media that clearly indicated that he no more accepted the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, did not surprisingly move the top brass of the party to reach out to him. Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh had said that the time has come for the party to support their own strong regional leaders if it seeks to win back the states. He had said as much before the Punjab polls.

If Vaghela joins the BJP it would be labelled as homecoming as he was one of the tallest leaders in the BJP before he fell out with the leadership and joined the Congress many years ago. Ironically, Vaghela and Modi who had deep roots in the RSS had worked closely to build up the BJP since the eighties.

Soon after he quit the party, six Congress MLAs also quit joining the BJP. One of them, Balwantsinh Rajput, will soon become a Rajya Sabha MP.

Dr Tejashree Patel, another Congress MLA from Viramgam who quit the assembly and the party, was a vocal critic of the BJP. P I Patel from Vijapur constituency was the third MLA who quit.  All this should not have come as a surprise for the Congress as 11 of its members had cross voted for the successful BJP presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind recently.  More Congressmen are expected to quit soon and join the BJP, according to a source. Many of them have reportedly been approached by the BJP leadership to switch loyalties. The strength of the Congress in the 182 seat assembly has now been reduced to 54. Vaghela, fondly referred to as “Bapu” was the only Congress leader who has a wide following all over the state.

The Congress has not been in power in Gujarat since the last 23 years and it is not going to be easy to dislodge the resurgent BJP in the coming assembly polls as more of its members will join the BJP and upset its poll calculations. Both Modi and Amit Shah have announced that the party is now targeting 150 seats in the 182-member assembly. It is not easy to get so many seats, but with the party engineering defections, this might just happen though one would have laughed at this figure just six months ago!  The Congress has lost its opportunity of unseating the BJP as it had incumbency, the Patidar agitation, the anger of the Dalits and the uneasy feel among the Muslims to boost their chances. The BJP now has 121 members in the house.

In May, the BJP knew it was on slippery ground in the state and so aggressively set about to re-energise its cadres in the party, VHP and Bajrang Dal. This was the first election it was fighting without Modi heading it. Vijay Rupani does not have the following or the charisma that Modi held with the Hindutva voters.  So it conducted a nine day programme covering 48,000 booths where as many BJP volunteers were hand-picked to whip up mass-contact programmes, conduct workshops, register new members and go from door to door to talk to voters explaining on why the party deserved another chance. 

There are many issues that the Congress can raise in Gujarat but with an absence of leadership, this is just not happening. The party is not learning from its losses in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Uttarakhand. Or is it learning from the fact that it needs to recognize that the BJP works fast and in a systematic fashion as they did in both Manipur and Goa to form a government when they had lesser seats than the Congress. 

Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta is right when he says that with a new ideological force like the BJP so dominant, politics as usual will not suffice. He recently wrote in The Indian Express: “The opposition’s main failing has been that even in defeat it has refused to change. From Congress to Lalu, all opposition parties exude a sense of political unreality: Not a single leader is changed in defeat, no new ideological narrative, no organizational energy, no symbolic imagination. The larger message for national politics is the opposition to the BJP cannot be built with the rotten materials of the old order.” 

Political opponent and political scientist Yogendra Yadav has pointed out that the opposition is not ready to see the writing on the wall of how Modi and the BJP has managed perception of the voters.  Unless the opposition reinvents itself in India, we are going to definitely see another term for Modi and also witness the saffornisation of India.

(Published on 07th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 32)