THERE’S a useful difference in losing and not winning. The Congress party lost Himachal Pradesh. It did not win Gujarat. However, both were elections of unusual importance, one that could determine the course of the fight against or surrender to the religious fascism hounding the country. Credit and blame cannot be an issue but it would help to know how and why the cookie crumbled the way it did.
There was a man who could open any difficult lock if the owner lost the key. He would first pray with his eyes closed, and then blow his purified, sacred breath on the lock. The magician lock opener would then pull out a bunch of keys from his bag and, with one of them would successfully prise open the lock. The moral of the story may interest Rahul Gandhi. He visited several temples in the course of his Gujarat campaign and perhaps in Himachal Pradesh too. We need to ask how or if these visits helped his party in Gujarat, where it performed well but fell clearly (some say luckily) short of a win. And we may want to know why the same piety didn’t give joy in Himachal Pradesh.
Let’s assume it was the key and not any prayer that worked in Gujarat then what constituted the key?
It is a fact that Mr Gandhi is a vastly improved public speaker today than he ever was, and he has shown ample commitment, underpinned with dignity and occasional humour to combat a divisive and abusive campaign by his opponents. But the opponents won. Ergo, divisive and abusive campaign won? The answer is yes and no.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have lost some if not all of the votes he lost to his reckless if increasingly vacuous tongue. It is equally true that communal polarisation has a proven record of working for the prime minister. But does he have a copyright on this very old Indian trick?
Given Gujarat’s history — pre-BJP history — with Hindu-Muslim mistrust this was not the territory where Mr Modi had to work very hard. Yet something has shifted. For example, in this election his desperate innuendos against former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while not sparing a former Army chief or a bevy of former high commissioners to Pakistan, didn’t seem to fly with the voters. The fact that Mr Modi looked troubled or even frightened by the Congress campaign cannot be denied.
However, his bête noire was not Rahul Gandhi’s newfound voice or his youthful energy alone. Consider the possibility that it was the three firebrand caste leaders who joined hands with him, which worked for the Congress in Gujarat.
Perversely, the troika could be a foremost reason why some analysts see his not winning Gujarat as a blessing for the Congress. Imagine a government with a wafer-thin majority or a hastily cobbled minority coalition of mutually hostile satraps taking charge in Mr Modi’s den less than two years before the general elections.
Liberal opinion-makers in their rush to see the fall of Mr Modi tend to forget how hazardous politically it would be to place a firebrand Dalit and an acid-spewing Patidar in the same political scabbard sans a patch of time for both to get accustomed to each other.
The politically influential Patidars have a sad record of abusing and insulting Dalits. Think for a moment of a coalition of Dalit Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. It would be a surprise if it didn’t fall apart before the takeoff.
The new Congress president said things in his acceptance speech recently that touched the heart for its simple appeal. “Many of us are disillusioned today by the politics of our times; what we see before us is a politics devoid of kindness and truth.” So far so good. “Politics belongs to the people,” Gandhi continued. “It is their greatest weapon in dismantling the structures that oppress, silence and disempower the people.”
There is no double guessing the intentions and the feeling with which Mr Gandhi spoke. How should we regard the total absence of a single caring word for Muslims in Gujarat, however, who constitute some nine per cent of about 68 million people?
“We fight for everyone and for all those on the periphery, for all those relegated to the fringes. We fight for those who cannot fight alone,” Mr Gandhi said. It is tempting to see the words alluding to the least empowered. In practice, however, one has seen other oppositio leaders standing up to condemn fascism.
For Mr Gandhi, the BJP members are his brothers and sisters though he doesn’t agree with their politics. Have we heard the leader speak so gently of, say, Mr Arvind Kejriwal who greeted him warmly, about Mr Lalu Yadav or Ms Mamata Banerjee, about the communists? Have his aides told him that he stands to lose Hindu votes if he is not nice to the BJP? Or does he fear they could harm him if he is strident with Hindutva, unlike the contempt Indira Gandhi and Nehru reserved for the ilk?
The days ahead will show how Mr Gandhi will take on the Modi government. It is important to protest against Mr Modi for accusing respected Indians, including Dr Manmohan Singh, of colluding with Pakistan against the BJP. But that is the easier protest. We haven’t heard a squeak of protest from Mr Gandhi against the televised killing of a migrant worker from West Bengal by a Hindutva devotee in Rajasthan. We haven’t heard a word against the recent jailing of Christians in different parts of the country for singing Christmas carols. We want to know if Mr Gandhi endorses the BJP’s protest against a legislator taking his oath in Urdu. Mr Gandhi may hold the key to the battle plan, but worry if he starts praying instead.