Analysing his party’s electoral prospects in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, a senior Congress leader declared with certainty, “We will come back to power with a better mandate.”

His confidence came from several factors: the Congress had proved its critics wrong by successfully leading a coalition government for a full five-year term, and it had found a middle-class hero in its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who had been praised for standing firm on a nuclear deal with the United States in the face of stiff opposition from the Left parties, allies in his government. But most importantly, the Congress leader pointed out, there was no Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the rival camp.

The Bharatiya Janata Party had named veteran leader leader LK Advani as its prime ministerial candidate because Vajpayee had announced his retirement from politics after his government’s defeat in the 2004 general elections. Clearly, the Congress was convinced – and rightly so, as the election results proved – that Advani lacked the charisma, oratorical skills and affable nature that had endeared Vajpayee to the people.

Gamble that did not pay off

The Congress had reason to be relieved that Vajpayee was not in the fray – even though the party and its regional allies had pulled off an unexpected victory over his National Democratic Alliance government in 2004. That result was as much of a surprise to the Congress as it was for Vajpayee considering that he was at the peak of his popularity then, reflected in the BJP’s “India Shining” election campaign.

The Congress’ sense of relief came from its experience in 1999. In April that year, the newly-anointed Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, joined hands with Opposition leaders such as Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party and J Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to defeat the Vajpayee government in a no-confidence motion. Gandhi, whose Italian origins were a subject of intense controversy at the time, was seen as the villain of the piece, the foreigner who had conspired to humiliate a popular and tall leader like Vajpayee. The fact that he had lost by a single vote generated unprecedented sympathy for the BJP leader.

But the gamble did not pay off for the Congress. Gandhi failed to form the government as other Opposition leaders including the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar refused to back her up on account of her foreign origins. In the elections that followed in September 1999, the BJP-led coalition defeated the Congress and its allies. The Congress spent the next five years in the Opposition, well aware that it was paying the price for its misadventures. There is no denying that the Congress contributed in no mean measure in enhancing Vajpayee’s stature.

Both the Congress and BJP have come a long way since then. Faced with a shrinking footprint across the country, the Congress is now battling for survival. The BJP, on the other hand, has emerged as the central pole in Indian politics with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its mascot. Having registered big victories both at the national level and in multiple states, the BJP is looking to replicate its success as it gets ready for the next electoral challenge in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year, to be followed by the Lok Sabha polls next year.

Sonia Gandhi became the villain of the piece for her role in bringing down the Vajpayee government in 1999. But the gamble backfired for the Congress. (Credit: Arvind Yadav / HT)

In Vajpayee’s memory

As the rival parties brace for this face-off, there is a lurking fear in the Congress that the BJP may try to cash in on any sympathy factor generated by Vajpayee’s death on Thursday. On the very next day, in fact, senior Congress leaders predicted that the BJP would invoke Vajpayee’s memory for electoral gain.

“The BJP is quite capable of conducting kalash yatras [of his ashes] in Vajpayee’s memory in the run-up to the elections,” said a Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh who did not want to be identified. He added that the BJP could also put up posters of Vajpayee and use his speeches during the campaign, all in an attempt to put the Congress in the dock for its actions in 1999. This could derail the Congress’ plan to wrest the state from the BJP at a time when it is grappling with anti-incumbency after 15 years in power, the leader pointed out.

The BJP’s leaders denied this, saying Modi’s charisma, party president Amit Shah’s organisational skills and the work done by its chief ministers in the three poll-bound states would see them through.

But Congress leaders were not convinced and their worries seemed to have some ground as the BJP, in the coming days, announced a series of programmes to commemorate Vajpayee.

It started with the immersion of his ashes in the Ganga river in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, on Sunday. The BJP plans to scatter Vajpayee’s ashes in several other sacred rivers across the country, take his “asthi kalash” to all the state capitals and district headquarters, and hold prayer meetings at several venues, right down to the panchayat level.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s three-term chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, said the state would set up memorials in Vajpayee’s honour in Gwalior and Bhopal and make the veteran leader’s biography a part of school curriculum.

A section in the Congress believes many fence sitters who are disillusioned with the BJP may return to its fold out of respect and regard for Vajpayee, especially since he hailed from Madhya Pradesh.

Others in the Congress are drawing comfort from the fact that Vajpayee had withdrawn from public life in the last 14 years. Moreover, they say the elections are still around three months away and the BJP may not be able to sustain any momentum generated in its favour by Vajpayee’s death.

The Congress strategy

Nevertheless, the Congress is lining up its arguments to counter any move the BJP may make to invoke Vajpayee’s memory for electoral gain. Party leaders said these include drawing a distinction between a liberal and large-hearted Vajpayee and the hardliner Modi whose stint in power, they say, has destroyed the country’s social fabric.

In the event of the BJP using Vajpayee's memory for electoral gain, the Congress reportedly plans to point to the BJP veteran's unhappiness with Modi during the 2002 Gujarat riots. (Credit: PTI)

They said the Congress would, for instance, remind the people that Vajpayee was deeply unhappy with the handling of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat by Modi, then the state’s chief minister, and wanted him to step down. This did not happen, but Vajpayee did pointedly ask Modi to follow “raj dharma” or the duties of a ruler. Modi, they say, is not in the same mould as Vajpayee and, hence, not the right person to continue his legacy.

The leaders added that the Congress will also point out that unlike the BJP’s current leadership, which treats the Opposition as the enemy, Vajpayee showed his political rivals respect. This is evident from statements made by Opposition leaders in the last few days hailing Vajpayee as a consensus-builder who did not hesitate to extend a hand of friendship to his opponents.

On Thursday, senior Congress leader tweeted:

“The phrase ‘right man in the wrong party’ was coined especially for Vajpayee,” said an Opposition leader.

This argument may be flawed but the Congress will not hesitate to use it to score over the BJP.