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Congress Will Have to Relinquish National Space to Regional Parties

4 11

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo have done it again, swept into the South and captured Karnataka as the single largest party. The charisma of the Prime Minister and the strategy of Shah—where the end justifies the means—has decimated the Congress despite the absence of a strong anti-incumbency factor, giving the BJP its 21st state since it came to power in 2014.

This has given rise to serious speculation about an early general election although BJP leaders seem dismissive about what is largely media speculation. There seems to be little reason for PM Modi to cut short his five year in office, for a second term, as there seems to be a sense of confidence within the party of its ability to turn around even troublesome states like Rajasthan. Instead the government will be moving into a pro-people mould in terms of schemes to win over the farmers as well as the Dalits, the two distressed and alienated sections. It will wait for these schemes to pan out and move into the general elections as scheduled early next year.


Shah has again demonstrated his ability to work across the clock, but again more so his shrewd management of caste and community equations along with local issues. The BJP allowed the Congress to make the noise about securing the Lingayat vote, but worked hard behind the mutts to convince the community that its future was protected only under PM Modi. It played the huge communal, divisive card to address the coastal belt and other seats where the Hindu-Muslim factor had festered over the years, with the occasional violence given only momentary attention by the media, had divided the populace into distinct camps. And it managed to convince farmers that agrarian distress was largely because of the Siddaramaiah government, and a BJP government in both the centre and the state would facilitate alleviation of their burning issues.

Clearly the Delhi WhatsApp debate did not impact on the reality of Karnataka. The Old Mysore belt was left by the BJP to te Janata Dal-S that was locked in contest with the Congress for the seats here. Shah opened sufficient channels of communication with JD-S leader Deve Gowda and his son H.D.Kumaraswamy to work out a coalition of required, and focused instead on the other regions of the state. The Vokkaliga vote was left almost entirely to the Gowda’s to handle, and instead worked on convincing the Lingayats that they were not exclusive for the Congress party. In fact while touring Karnataka the Vokkaligas even in Siddaramaiah’s own constituency Chamundeshwari were categorical that they were not going to vote for him, but for a sitting JD-S sitting candidate. One villager said, “he has done nothing for us, and now he wants our vote,” making it clear that the new Congress strategy to woo the Lingayats had not found favour with his community.

Shah criss crossed over 50,000km in the state in one month, indicative of the hard work he put in stitching alliances, strategy, and communities together. The BJP thus, had a different argument for each area, sometimes even for constituencies, with the urban areas being promised development, often mixed with communalism. Significantly, several urban voters spoke of casting the ballot for specifically the Prime Minister in the 20i9 elections and voting Congress this time but were clearly convinced not to wait by him. The 21 rallies, an increase of at least six over the earlier number planned, seemed to have touched a new low for the uber elite in Delhi but clearly carried a message of solidarity that was picked up and used by the voters in the different parts of Karnataka. This ranged from questions about the Congress and its leaders, to lack of development, to corruption despite housing Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers, to Siddaramaiah’s non-governance, all laced with communal overtones that sharpened in the coastal belt through the campaign of leaders like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

It was again an unabashed divisive campaign, but was given teeth by the organisation and strategy on the ground with RSS cadres, senior ministers, BJP workers working around the clock in the districts. Trends were detected at the ground level, and countered as sources said, through a disinformation campaign whereas the PM himself demonstrated, facts were happily turned to fiction as and when required. As a taxi driver in Bengaluru said, “I will vote for PM Modi.” Why? “Because he has done so much work and will do it here if his government comes”. What work has he done? “I don’t have the time to say it all, but you know better than I do.” How do you know he has done this work? “Why television tells us that every day, I only know from the media.”

The Congress party still does not seem to have understood the challenge. And is caught between the conservative, outdated approach of the old guard and the yet to be formulated thoughts of the new. The senior party leaders in the Congress are not of those who were literally purged from the party by Indira Gandhi for being too independent for comfort, and are a motley bunch with some but not sufficient understanding of regional politics. Those like Siddaramaiah who do, ran a non-performing government for three years, woke up in the fourth year and then tried to play the regional card that the BJP exposed as being opportunist, sought new alliances with a community like the Lingayats it had never really addressed before, and fielded Ministers half of whom lost the elections as per the early results today.

The Congress does not have a Modi and a Shah, capable of sustained hard work, around the clock. Forget about charisma and strategy, even the basic hard work is not visible except around election time. The party won Punjab largely because of the deep anger with the Akali Dal-BJP government and Amarinder Singh’s own image that has declined dramatically since. In all other states the absence of an organisation on the ground—Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—has kept the Congress tally to negligible levels. In Gujarat the party did well because of the ground work done by the three young leaders Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and in particular Hardik Patel. And the Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s willingness despite opposition from the old guard, to bring the three leaders on board.
Shah’s strategy always has a Plan B. This is the reason why he is able to form governments in states where the BJP has lost and the Congress won, starting with Goa. The Congress barely has a Plan A, and no Plan B. In Karnataka Shah had kept the JD-S happy in more ways than one. The Congress started by alienating the JD-S with Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders describing it as a B Team of the BJP. The Congress woke up to the possibility of a coalition late into the election campaign, with Shah already having got a head start. In case Plan B had been required to come into operation it is clear that the JD-S would have gone along with the BJP.

The Congress to even have a chance in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the next states to go to the polls, will have to take a leaf out of the Modi-Shah book. And realise that a Congress mukt bharat is almost a complete reality.

Decisive majority or not, the BJP has wrested Karnataka from the Congress party. And while the devil might lie in the details of Modi-Shah campaign and strategy, with no bar too low, the Opposition in India has to realise that it is up against not a political party but an ideological organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh whose chief Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat had only recently announced that his ‘army’ could scramble for duty ahead of the Indian Army.

And this army has been very visible on the streets, in either targeting innocents in the name of food or love and carrying arms into processions and protests. Old conventional methods of countering a ruling party, by a quarreling, fractious Opposition this will not work in containing, let alone defeating, the Hindutva forces that are now controlling 21 Indian states.

There is concern and movement within the Opposition but it is not cohesive as yet. And will not become unless the realisation sinks in that one, the challenge to the BJP will come from the regional parties; and two, the Congress party will have to give due respect and space to the regional political parties in specific states as well as in the larger political arena.

Karnataka has demonstrated this, with the BJP weak in the areas dominated by the Janata Dal-Secular. In the Old Mysuru belt for instance the contest was between the JD-S and the Congress party with the presence of the BJP in 50 odds seats in Karnataka negligible. Instead of turning this to its advantage, the Congress decided to fight the JD-S in Karnataka with visible anger within the smaller party about this ‘treatment’. As JD-S leader Danish Ali told The Citizen, first Rahul Gandhi went to Deve Gowda’s constituency Haasan and called us the B team of the BJP, and then the Congress continued to derile us.” As he pointed out there was no movement by the Congress to even speak with the JD-S before the elections.

After the elections were known, Congress president Sonia Gandhi telephoned Deve Gowda to come together to form the government in what is a belated move which the Governor might or might not recognise. Siddaramaiah came before the media, flanked by Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot, to say that he would accept a JD-S government in what is clearly a response to the smaller party’s demand to make its stand public. The Congress has suggested a Dalit Deputy CM with Kumaraswamy in the first spot. And all this is possible only because the BJP has not got a full majority, with this last shot in the hope that it will not be able to break legislators from the others to make up the shortfall, and hence the Governor will ultimately have to give the coalition a chance.

All this could have been avoided with a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the JD-S with a joint, enthusiastic campaign in the state. The Congress party allied with the JD-U and the RJD in Bihar and the coalition swept the state despite an aggressive BJP. The Congress played the junior partner, and realised that a coalition was the only way forward. The organisation of the regional parties was strong and able to make inroads into the rural areas, counter the assertive BJP propaganda, and win the elections. It is of course another matter that CM Nitish Kumar could not walk the talk and squandered away the mandate by allying the BJP.

In UP the Congress that does not have a presence of any kind tried to repeat the performance with the Samajwadi party. The two could not succeed because of the inner feud within the SP between the father and the son, and the sabotage of seats from within. The Congress party being without a basic organisation was unable to bring anything to the table. However, more recently in the parliamentary bypolls the Bahujan Samaj party and the SP came together with Akhilesh Yadav now in clear charge, and won both Gorakhpur and Phulpur. This seems to have run sufficient bells in UP, with the two parties now having tied up with the Rashtriya Lok Dal for the Kairana by poll that is due soon. If the coalition wins this seat it will be a major plus in a belt that the BJP has communalised since 2013.
The Congress should have done the same in Karnataka, instead of displaying its usual arrogance insofar as the JD-S was concerned. As Ali and other said, the two would have swept the state together, more as the Congress still has a higher vote percentage than the BJP. Both JD-S and Congress today have an over 55% vote share in Karnataka, despite the BJP emerging as the single largest party and closest to the finishing line.

The federal parties in fact have been stopping the BJP juggernaut as it were. Be it in West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee has given the party a run for its money; Kerala where the Left Front has contained its determined effort to emerge as a force; Bihar where it had to come in through the back door; currently UP where it has lost key by elections; Tamil Nadu where it has been unable to grow because of the determination of the DMK and the AIADMK; Andhra Pradesh where ally Chandrababu Naidu and the Telugu Desam has parted ways to control the state singly.

In fact the BJP growth in states where its contest is directly with the Congress party is assured. Although now the Congress claims it will win Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh both. There is a question mark actually on both, with the BJP now announcing its intention to camp in these states and turn around the recalcitrant Rajasthan where it admits to having a “slight problem.” This has more to do with Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje than the BJP, the party believes, and will probably project Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a new leadership to win over the state.

The Congress party will have to learn to play second fiddle to the regional parties, and help set up an alternative Opposition alternative where it does not necessarily remain in the centre. There are political parties who are as opposed to the Congress as the BJP—such as the Biju Janata Dal— who still remain crucial to the emergence of a viable alternative. A below the radar presence by the Congress will allow larger Opposition unity, and act as a restraint on those who are not averse to flirting with the BJP for power. The JD-S, BSP, RLD are at least three such political parties.

Besides these, there are any number of smaller regional parties many of which like the Apna Dal and the Lokjanshakti party, the BJP had got on board in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. These political parties could all be persuaded to join the larger federal front, provided it is not dominated by the Congress party. It is no secret from the Janata Dal days of power at the centre, that the regional political parties have a far more penetrative presence on the ground with better organisational skills than the Congress party.

Time is running out for the Lok Sabha polls, more so if the government decides to pre-pone these by crucial months. The desperation shown by the Congress after the Karnataka results gave the thumbs up to the BJP, should be visible in efforts to form a broad coalition for 2019 without dictating the mandate. This writer has always found the regional parties to be wary of the Congress and the arrogance associated with the First Family. The lead will have to be taken by a group of regional leaders, with the Congress and the Left supporting from outside if necessary and providing the stability required to keep it together.

This alone will ensure a one on one contest in the 2019 elections in what can in some states take on anti BJP, anti-Congress form. In Orissa for example the Congress, even if kept out of a local alliance, should ensure a one on one election by leaving the key seats to the BJD to fight against the BJP. Anyway the Congress is barely a force in India now, and a strategic retreat in the forthcoming general elections could help in a revival in later years. Competition and animosity with the regional groupings will only hasten its end.