With new energy, Cong puts up a real fight

 

Pavan K Varma

The much-awaited results for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are out. The BJP has won both, and deserves to be congratulated. To some extent, the results were not unexpected. In Himachal Pradesh, victory has always alternated between the BJP and the Congress. The Congress was in power this time, and now, following established trends, it was the turn of the BJP. As it turned out, the victory of the BJP in the hill state has been decisive. It did not help the Congress, I think, to have octogenarian Virbhadra Singh leading its campaign. On the other hand, the BJP’s image has been dented by the fact that Prem Singh Dhumal, its chief ministerial candidate, has lost.
Far more attention was expectedly focused on Gujarat. The BJP has retained the upper hand there, but the Congress has certainly managed to put a foot into the otherwise impregnable state of the country’s Prime Minister. A win is a win, but the BJP’s overall seats tally has come down, and that of the Congress has gone up. At 99, the BJP is down by 16 seats; at 77, the Congress is up by 16. The BJP has marginally increased its voteshare percentage, but the Congress too has boosted it by six per cent.
There are three major takeaways from the Gujarat elections. First, the BJP was, notwithstanding its victory, given a real run for its money. All the stops were pulled out to meet this challenge because a loss or even a poor showing in Gujarat — the PM’s home state — would have had tectonic consequences. Over two dozen Central ministers were assigned to the state; the PM made countless rallies; and a Parliament session was postponed to accommodate the BJP’s imperative to win Gujarat. And, most important, all talk of vikas was thrown out of the window as a transparent and vicious campaign was centered around religious polarisation.
Labels like “KhiljikiAulad”, Aurangzeb, Babar Bhakt were bandied about freely to tarnish the Congress. Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh were quickly reduced to the motivated acronym of “HAJ”. An organised campaign appeared to have focused on spreading the canard that if the Congress wins, Ahmad Patel, a Muslim, would be made the chief minister. The last straw was the PM himself making the unprecedented charge that a former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, a former vice-president, Hamid Ansari, and a former Army Chief, Gen. Deepak Kapoor — not to speak of several very distinguished Indian diplomats — were conspiring with Pakistan to defeat the BJP in Gujarat! The PM also made the insinuation that an obscure retired general in Pakistan had said that Ahmad Patel would be made the CM if the Congress came to power. The desperate invocation of Pakistan as a strategy to seduce or intimidate voters is not new. Amit Shah had said during the Bihar elections in 2015 that firecrackers would be lit in celebration in Pakistan if the Mahagathbandhan wins!
The second takeaway was that, contrary to expectations, the Congress put a spirited fight. The central figure in this reinvigorated campaign was Rahul Gandhi. There were several new traits in his campaign strategy. First, contrary to the personalised attacks on him, he said that no derogatory words would be used against the office of the PM. Second, he chose humility over arrogance. If a tweet he made had a factual error, he was quick to accept the mistake by saying that to err is human. Third, he was willing to make course corrections. One example was the visit to temples. India is a country where religion is an important factor. In the past, the Congress had suffered from the tag of minority appeasement at the cost of the interests of the majority community. This was — if not entirely, but significantly — set to rest by Rahul’s temple run, where he paid due obeisance without diluting his central commitment to the need to respect all faiths. Fourth, in contrast to the BJP’s rhetoric on religious polarisation, he dealt with issues that were hurting the ordinary Gujarati — the after effects of demonetisation and a badly executed GST, jobless growth, the ill-treatment of dalits, and the agrarian crisis — all of which were a cause of considerable anger and discontent. And finally, he demonstrated that when required he could take swift and decisive action. Mani Shankar Aiyar was asked to apologise and was suspended from the primary membership of the Congress Party within hours of his use of inappropriate language for the PM. This decisiveness was also visible in the decision of the Congress Party to anoint a new president without waiting to see what happens in these elections.
The third takeaway was the apparent lack of impartiality of the Election Commission (EC). There are no credible answers why the EC delayed the application of the model code of conduct in Gujarat by a week, merely — it would appear — to enable the PM to announce a slew of sops for Gujarat. A notice was issued to Rahul Gandhi for interviews to TV channels after campaigning in the first phase was over (which it withdrew on Sunday night), but no notice was issued to BJP president Amit Shah, who gave a similar interview from a government venue like the airport. The PM literally conducted a roadshow after casting his vote, but the EC remained silent, when in 2014, a notice was issued to him for a selfie taken after he cast his vote while displaying the BJP symbol. The EC enjoys a great deal of respect as an impartial entity, but if it seems to be partisan it bodes ill for the functioning of democracy in our country.
To my mind, the battle for 2019 is far from being a done deal. Industrial production is down to 2.2 per cent, manufacturing to 2.5 per cent, agricultural growth at a lowly 1.7 per cent; inflation has risen just this month from 3.6 per cent to 4.9 per cent, with vegetables alone going up by 22 per cent; private capital investment in this quarter is the lowest in the last 10 years; jobs are scarce, and farmers are still committing suicide; and, not the least, we are facing a situation of endemic social instability due to religious fanaticism.
Ultimately people vote on matters that touch their lives, not eloquence or promises. The BJP needs to introspect on these matters. And the Opposition needs to gear up for what could be an interesting fight in 2019. The real battle has just begun.