There is more than a month to go before the results of the Punjab elections are out on March 11, but it would not be wrong to say that Rahul Gandhi has ignored the good hand that circumstances have dealt him and turned his attentions to the wrong game.
The Congress vice president has expended tremendous energy, time and resources in Uttar Pradesh, instead of focusing on Punjab, where his party occupied pole position in the months before February 4, when the state voted to elect its new government.
Any other driver of a political vehicle would have chosen to consolidate his advantage in that state and ensure a victory. But not Rahul Gandhi, who parachuted into Uttar Pradesh to lead rallies with the hope of whipping up support for the Congress. His team first tried to create a buzz by telling the media that his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, may have led the Congress charge there. The party then developed cold feet and nominated 78-year-old Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate.
It was an uninspiring decision, given that the electorate in India is increasingly becoming younger. Worse, Dikshit had not yet shaken off the corruption charges leveled against her during her 15 years as Delhi’s chief minister.
All these manoeuvres ended tamely, with the Congress becoming a junior partner in an electoral alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.
Political pundits say that the alliance was the best option for the Congress to improve upon its 2012 performance, when it was in fourth place, with 28 seats in a 404-member Assembly. It wasn’t the best strategy. While the alliance may give Congress more seats, the credit for defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party, if it succeeds in doing so, will be given to Yadav, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, not to Rahul Gandhi.
Eye on 2019
Rahul Gandhi must have known this political reality. If he chose to concentrate on Uttar Pradesh, it could only have been because the state sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. Winning a chunk of these seats gives a boost to a party’s ambition to capture power at the Centre. On paper, there is an irrefutable logic to Gandhi’s decision to focus on Uttar Pradesh.
In reality, though, this is a miscalculation that might cost the Congress dearly. That is because Uttar Pradesh election results have greater significance for Narendra Modi and the BJP than the Congress.
It is here that the BJP won 71 seats (its ally Apna Dal won another two) and swept to power in Delhi in 2014. If the saffron party fails to win the 2017 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, it would send a message of Prime Minister Modi’s weakening – signalling that even though he looms large over national politics, he cannot take as inevitable his victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
But even if the BJP fails to win Uttar Pradesh, it would not mean concrete gains for the Congress – only a psychological boost. In such a scenario, Modi would be pushed to the backfoot, his followers would lose their supreme confidence in the leader and Congress could hope to live to fight another day.
Therein lies the catch: because Gandhi, unduly and rather futilely, concentrated his energies on Uttar Pradesh, he now runs the risk of losing the predominant position in the Opposition. This will be his fate if his party fails to win Punjab – the chances of which are not low.
This is why Gandhi made a terrible decision by not focusing the good hand he was dealt in Punjab. The Akali Dal-BJP government there had become palpably unpopular, as is evident from the alliance’s inability to ride the Modi wave to a strong performance in 2014. The de-facto captain of the Congress ship should have wheeled out the big guns to the deck.
Instead, for many months thereafter, the Congress state unit was hobbled by the factional feud between former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Pratap Singh Bajwa, the Punjab Congress president at the time, whom Gandhi supported. It was only in December 2015 that Singh was anointed the Congress’ chief in Punjab, that too, after he threatened to quit the party and float his own outfit, which is what he told NTDV in an interview in May 2016.
Gandhi’s reservations about Singh perhaps arose from his seniority. It is hard to order around a popular septuagenarian or expect him to genuflect to a person 28 years his junior, more so because Captain Singh has the arrogance and pride typical of members of erstwhile royal families. Though he is arguably their most popular face in the state, the Congress refrained from naming him the chief ministerial candidate until a week before Punjab went to polls, on January 27.
It was also only in this week that Rahul Gandhi threw himself into the hurly-burly of Punjab’s Assembly elections, attracting crowds wherever he went. He also tried to induce fear among Hindus, claiming, without evidence, that Sikh militancy would return to haunt the state if Aam Aadmi Party were to come to power. Even this contemptible ruse at communal consolidation might turn out to be the proverbial case of closing the stable door after the horses had bolted.
Imagine the scenario in Punjab had Gandhi toured the state as frequently as he did Uttar Pradesh. Think of the outcome had he apologised for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, something the Gandhi family has obstinately refused to do and which still remains a sore point for the community.
Or imagine the impact had he expressed regret over the Emergency and rampant human rights violations during the crackdown on Sikh militancy in the 1980s and ’90s, which the state is still bitter about. Not only would it have carved out an image for Rahul Gandhi independent of his family, it would have given tremendous momentum to the Congress campaign.
Much at stake
A new national rival to the Congress might be born in case AAP wins Punjab or even emerges a close second. Either way, this will be historic: for the first time a regional outfit would have farmed out to another state. Do not also forget Goa, where AAP is also a contender for power.
Among Opposition parties, only the Congress and the Left can boast of a presence beyond one state, though both are on a downward curve. Unlike other regional outfits, AAP has national ambitions and sensibilities. Its agenda of clean governance, emphasis on education, health and the politics of interest over that of identity have given it a national appeal, in sharp contrast to other state-based parties.
Indeed, the ongoing Assembly elections to five states – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur – are as much about gauging whether Modi’s popularity has been dented as they are about determining the contours of Opposition politics. An AAP win in Punjab will enhance the national quotient of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who will be spurred to campaign vigorously in Gujarat later this year.
This is bad news for the Congress, as a triangular contest will make it difficult for the party to exploit the discontent in Gujarat and capture what is decidedly Modi’s lair.
Trying to hold on
Worse, the Congress’ failure to win Punjab will only bolster the narrative that Rahul Gandhi does not have it in him to deliver an electoral victory on his own, that he cannot grow to become more than just an ideological and rhetorical opponent to Modi, around whom Indian polity will continue to revolve until at least 2019.
As such, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance is an admission by India’s grand old party that it cannot independently take on Modi’s BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
In addition, among the other electorally big states, the party’s presence is already negligible or marginal in Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and it is moot whether it can win Maharashtra without an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party.
Moreover, the party has been unable to win the BJP-held states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat for years now. Karnataka is in Congress’ pocket, but it will face anti-incumbency in the Assembly election due mid-next year.
It is possible that, before Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls at the end of 2018 – just a few months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – a Congress government might exist only in Puducherry, which is a Union Territory, and perhaps Uttarakhand, where the Congress still has a fair chance of returning to power.
Worse, it is possible that AAP, after experimenting in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat, might try its luck in states whose polity is still bipolar. The Congress, judging from its current health, will begin to huff and puff.
This means the grand old party runs the risk of seeing the turf that it occupies in the Opposition corner shrinking. This will render a Congress revival difficult.
Political pundits will point to the alliances the Congress has stitched, for instance, in Bihar – where it is part of a Mahagathbandhan with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) – and Uttar Pradesh to argue that such tie-ups are the course India’s grand old party will take to capture power at the Centre.
But come 2019 and the alliance partners will become extremely parsimonious in giving seats to the Congress. A Samajwadi Party-Congress victory in Uttar Pradesh will enhance the political status of Akhilesh Yadav, even pitchfork him as a rising national leader who has a terrific connection with the young. It is inconceivable that Yadav will give a large share of seats in Uttar Pradesh to the Congress and spark its revival, which would only be to his own detriment.
The Congress will be then hard pressed to win enough seats to call the shots in such a disparate alliance. A querulous, unstable arrangement will not be easy to sell to the people.
Even more depressingly for the Congress, AAP’s audacious electoral moves in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat might even persuade regional entities that are not part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to believe that Kejriwal is their best bet to vanquish Modi and the BJP.
Indeed, whichever way you look, Gandhi has chosen to squander his advantage in Punjab. This misadventure is perhaps because of a personality trait natural in a person who belongs to a political dynasty that has ruled India for most of its history, which makes him think his promptings will suffice to make people realise that the Congress is a natural party of governance.
This belief in the dynasty’s magical powers is what has made Gandhi such a poor reader of politics and blunted his political instinct to go in for the kill. He must neither overestimate the strength of the Congress nor underestimate its decline – and never forget that the path to power in Delhi lies through states.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.