'Congress-mukt Bharat' has become a buzzword for political discourse in the country after the state election results earlier this month saw the Congress party lose its government in two of the three major states (out of the 20 such major states in the country) that it had held till recently.
Now it is left with just Karnataka till 2018, when the elections are due there. If anti-incumbency catches up with this southern state – given the Kannadigas’ recent electoral preference to throw out the incumbent government after five years – then the wash-out of the Congress would be, more or less complete.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi talks to party Vice President Rahul Gandhi on stage during the farmers rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on Sunday. PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan(PTI4_19_2015_000049B)Congress President Sonia Gandhi with party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. PTI.
The party would be then left with a couple of tiny north-eastern states to draw its sustenance from. Narendra Modi’s call in 2014 for a Congress-mukt Bharat would then become a virtual reality before the next General elections in 2019.
The Congress’s predicament is such that it is wilting under the weight of anti-incumbency where it is in power and it is not able to bounce back to power where it is in the opposition. It is a predicament that is symptomatic of a death-wish. For the Congress, it is turning out as if electoral decimation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is the decline of the Congress an irreversible process or is it that it is just a temporary blip for the century-old party and will it come round to its winning ways sooner rather than later? Those who have already written down the obituary of the Congress would tend to agree with the first assumption. Those who see a possibility of the Congress redeeming its lost glory in the years to come will agree with the latter.
As always, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty will be the key to the future of the party: if the leadership will be incapable to infuse new zeal in what is fast turning out to be a moribund party, then it will pass into history. But if it sets in motion immediate corrective measures to halt the reversal process, it will possibly survive to fight another day.
The Congress has two major fights at hand in the next two years – Gujarat in 2017 and Karnataka in 2018. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are also there next year, but the Congress will not be of any major consequence in that state (in spite of the professionals like Prashant Kishores who have been entrusted the task to revive the party there), unless Mayawati’s BSP agrees to take the Congress on as a junior partner in the electoral race against the ruling Samajwadi party and the insurgent BJP.
But, like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mamata in West Bengal, Mayawati may go whole hog on her own. In that case, the Congress will most likely register its token presence only in the family borough of Amethi and Rae Bareli, and largely disappear in the rest of the state.
Karnataka and Gujarat offer contrasting challenges. In Karnataka, the Congress has the task to defend the government’s achievements and fight anti-incumbency; in Gujarat, it faces the challenge of throwing out the incumbent BJP government and take power. These are two doable tasks.
In Karnataka, the Congress Chief Minister, K Siddaramaiah, is considered to be an able administrator. In his tenure as chief minister over the last three years, he has not faced as much challenge from the BJP, the major opposition party, as from some of his own party men who have still not reconciled with the idea that an import from an opposition party (he joined the Congress in 2006) took the reins of the government when the Congress came to power in 2013. Those who had worked their life-time in the Congress felt betrayed with Siddaramaiah’s elevation to the top job.
The Congress leadership has had the unenviable task: to see to it that Siddaramaiah is not destabilised and at the same time to ensure that the veteran Congress leaders are kept in good humour. That is a skill a good political leadership should be able to demonstrate; that is a skill which Sonia Gandhi has displayed in ample measure in last two decades but that is a skill Rahul Gandhi sorely lacks. In his arrogance (paternal legacy, perhaps), he has ruffled many features and, in the process, has alienated many provincial leaders (Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam is the latest example).
Rahul Gandhi must learn from his mother the skill to manage competing egos in politics before he takes over from her as party president. Even if he gets his position as the heir of India’s premier political dynasty, he must remember that India is a democracy, not a monarchy. Here the wish of the prince cannot be an unequivocal command to be accepted by all party men; it has to be carefully calibrated to warrant wider acceptance. Rahul Gandhi must know that only if he does not allow his ego to get the better of his reasoning, then he would emerge as a successful leader. He must make Karnataka a test case to work it out.
At a time when many leaders are able to buck anti-incumbency through a series of social welfare measures targeting the poor (what is pejoratively called freebies), Siddaramaiah can always move aggressively in the next two years to prioritise the execution of schemes which would immediately bring succour to the majority. Thereby, he may earn the opprobrium for laying a premium on freebies over development, but that would be a small price to pay for earning himself, and the Congress, another term in power.
In the recent panchayat elections (in February this year), the Congress has done reasonably well, winning 16 of the 30 zila parishads; BJP got seven and the JD(S) two. In the rest five, there was no outright winner, but the Congress was ahead in most of them.
If the Congress keeps this momentum, it has a great chance to return to power, especially because the BJP has reinstated the former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa as the party leader in the state. Yeddyurappa has had an unsavoury reputation as the chief minister and had to spend time in jail on corruption charges. He had floated his own party and had sworn at the BJP and its leaders. His re-induction as the BJP leader has left many loyal party supporters dismayed.
In 2008, Yeddyurappa was the symbol of unity for the BJP to lead it to power in a state in South India for the first time. But in 2018, he may turn out to be the drag factor diminishing the chances of the BJP to get back to power.
If there is a fair chance for the Congress to keep power in Karnataka – if it plays its cards well – there is still a fairer chance for it to make a strike in Gujarat. The party registered a spectacular victory in the last panchayat elections In Gujarat: it won 23 out of 31 zila panchayats while the BJP got just eight.
It is, of course, true that the BJP held sway in the urban municipal elections. But the Patidar agitation, which has sworn itself to oust the BJP government, is likely to come to the rescue of the Congress in the urban settlement. By putting Hardik Patel, the young leader of the Patidar agitation in jail on sedition charges, the BJP government has dug its own grave.
The opportunity in Gujarat is waiting on the wings. If the Congress cannot cash in on it this time, it must be ready to be consigned to history.