Gujarat Gives Congress Oxygen but Revival is Still A Challenge

In a movie-crazy country, election victories too often are projected
in ‘filmi’ terms. So in response to my clichéd remark in the
television studio on the BJP’s narrow victory in Gujarat as a case of
‘Jo Jeeta Woh Sikandar’, a Congress leader responded with a dialogue from the Shahrukh Khan hit film, Baazigar: ‘Kabhi Kabhi Jeetne ke liye Kuch Haarna bhi padta hai, aur haar kar jeetne wale ko baazigar kehte hain!’ So were the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo the ‘Sikandars’ of Gujarat 2017 or was Rahul Gandhi the ‘Baazigar’?

The answer to that question in a cliff-hanger election like Gujarat
depends on which statistics you choose to cherry-pick to suit your
political convenience. The BJP could well claim that it has scored a
remarkable sixth consecutive victory in Gujarat and its vote share has risen by two per cent to just over 49 per cent in comparison to the 2012 assembly elections; the Congress could point out that the BJP tally has been reduced to double digits and a vote percentage difference of a whopping 27 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls has now shrunk to under seven per cent. With the margin of victory less than 3000 votes in 29 constituencies, this is an election that could have gone either way.

Statistics though will never fully tell you the big political picture that has emerged post-Gujarat as we head into the run-up to the 2019 general elections. Election results maybe about arithmetic but the political narrative is often about chemistry. And this is where Rahul Gandhi, for once, can actually have something to cling onto. For the first half of 2017, as the BJP swept Uttar Pradesh and prised Goa and Manipur from the Congress, there seemed little doubt that the Modi-Shah combine were an unstoppable juggernaut. When the BJP president boasted of ‘Mission 150’ in the 182 member Gujarat assembly, few doubted him. After all, if the BJP could score a whopping three-fourths victory in the country’s most populous and complex state, then surely the home turf of the country’s two most powerful men was a breezy walk along the Sabarmati riverfront? That the BJP eventually huffed and puffed over the finishing line is proof that nothing can ever be taken for granted in the maze of Indian politics.

By contrast, Mr Gandhi and the Congress were down and out after their UP debacle. Rahul was seen as a non-serious politician, flitting in and out of the country, his social image was typecast as a non-meritocratic, dynastical ‘Pappu’ and the party was dismissed as a patient in ICU. In Gujarat itself, more than a dozen MLAs switched sides, the party’s ‘face’ Shankarsinh Waghela left, and a Rajya Sabha election for Sonia Gandhi’s Man Friday, Ahmed Patel, had to be won by ferreting away Congress MLAs to a Bengaluru resort. Most political observers expected the Congress to fail once again at the ballot box: failure, after all, can be contagious. Which is why when a student who is expected to score 35 per cent gets 80 per cent, he has some reason to celebrate. Which is also why when the student who always gets distinction scrapes home with a first class, the jubilation is more muted.

And yet, if the BJP made the mistake of taking the Gujarat voter for granted, the Congress would be just as foolish in believing that a strong showing in rural Gujarat, especially Saurashtra, suggests that they are on the road to recovery. Gujarat has given the party some fresh oxygen but the patient is still in a semi-critical state. In Gujarat, Mr Gandhi had to deal with 22 years of accumulated debt, years in which the Congress had become a dysfunctional party while allowing the BJP to monopolise the political space. Rahul’s answer to the crisis was to co-opt populist local caste leaders, encourage new faces in ticket distribution and, importantly, plunge himself into the election campaign with an energy that has been clearly missing in the past. By positioning himself as the ‘underdog’ challenging the Modi model in its fortress, Rahul was able to garner traction if not always votes. It was an astute strategy, one which almost worked but for the fact that it was pitted against the most formidable election machine in the history of independent India led by a charismatic leader who still enjoys a huge emotional connect with his people.

But the Congress’s deep-rooted problems go well beyond the Modi versus
Rahul leadership battle. Can the Congress offer a vision that makes it more attractive to the rising aspirations of urban India (remember, the BJP swept urban Gujarat by a substantial margin)? Can the Congress re-define its stand on secularism beyond temple-hopping to avoid being
stereotyped as pro-minorities? Can the Congress give the farmer any hope of emerging out of the structural crisis that besets Indian agriculture or offer an economic plan for small and medium industries to revive and jobs to be created? Is there a ‘nationalistic’ spirit that the Congress offers to challenge the BJP’s monopoly over the ‘India First’ rhetoric? And does the Congress have enough committed foot-soldiers to combat the BJP’s panna pramukhs and party workers on the ground?

In Gujarat, the Congress could get away with asking all the questions because it was the BJP that had to deal with anti-incumbency after a long stint in power. But if it wants to position itself as a national alternative to the BJP, the Congress will have to convince enough Indians that the party under Rahul has little to do with a discredited ancien regime of sloth and corruption but is actuallyseeking to build a more compassionate, inclusive India based on the politics of hope not fear, and that it has a better economic agenda for jobs and growth than the BJP. Gujarat has opened a window of opportunity for the Congress but unless it is able to sustain the
momentum, it will remain a case of ‘Dilli Dur Ast’.

Post-script: Since we started this column with a Hindi film dialogue reference, maybe best to end it also in similar fashion. A day before the Gujarat counting, a Hindi news anchor asked me: ‘Kya Modi aur BJP ko Gujarat mein harana muskhil nahin, namumkin hai?’ That dialogue from another Shahrukh hit film Don suggested that the BJP was invincible in Gujarat. As the Gujarati voter has shown, in a vibrant democracy, invincibility is a myth that can only lead to self-delusion and arrogance.

CHAT WITH ME ON TWITTER

Books

The 2014 Indian general elections has been regarded as the most important elections in Indian history since 1977.
A parable on the limitations of vision and the dark side of love. This book presents a story of life's distorted perceptions
These are stories of ordinary people who are doing extraordinary work for our society and our nation.