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Congress’ loss, BJP’s gain: Learning lessons for a good fight

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
11 Dec 2023

One standard comment I have been hearing across the political and social spectrum is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) achieved a splendid victory in the just-concluded elections in five states, namely Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram. The comment concludes with the prediction that the results indicate Narendra Modi’s return as Prime Minister for his third term when the Lok Sabha elections are held in early 2024.

This comment has its origin in the ruling party, which has been popularising it through its handlers on social media platforms like Facebook and X. The idea is to instil in the minds of the people that Modi is invincible, and his return is just a formality. Once the common people believe that Modi is popular, they might prefer to swim with the current rather than against it.

Anyone familiar with herd mentality will concur that public opinion can be managed. Hitler, a demagogue with mental problems, convinced Germans that his leadership was inevitable to retrieve the country's image lost in the First World War. 

It required another world war for Germans to realise that Hitler, who contemplated marrying his girlfriend in his bunker's final hours, was a coward embracing suicide over fighting to his last breath. The point is that public opinion can be created. The BJP's campaign stating that they trounced the Congress should be seen in this context.

True, the Congress lost both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which it had been ruling. Worse, it suffered a greater defeat in Madhya Pradesh, which the Congress had actually won in the previous 2018 election. The 2018 election was a watershed event. Modi was in power at the Centre, yet the Congress defeated the BJP in all these states and wrested power from it. In Telangana, the victor was Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) of K. Chandrasekhar Rao.

Many, like this writer, had thought that the BJP was set to be defeated in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. What happened was quite different. The BJP won its greatest victory in that election. The party was freed from the responsibility of dancing to the tunes of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance. The allies had to remain satisfied with the crumbs of office thrown at them by the BJP leadership.

How did the BJP achieve such a spectacular victory after suffering a defeat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh? There were many factors, including a “terrorist attack” at Pulwama on February 14, 2019.

The person who was the governor in J&K at that time has made some statements that cast aspersions on the government's claims. In retrospect, it was an emotional vote the Congress received in 1984, reducing the BJP to just two seats in the Lok Sabha. Again, it was an emotional vote that allowed PV Narasimha Rao to form a government when Sonia Gandhi declined the offer.

In 2014, it was the campaign for Lok Pal under the leadership of Anna Hazare that paved the way for the defeat of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress. Somehow, the people believed that the Congress was corrupt. It is a different matter that Modi and his home minister Amit Shah have not been able to have any Congress or DMK leader convicted for corruption. Nobody hears anything about the Lok Pal these days!

The government has also not been able to unearth even a million rupees when it claimed that the Congress and its allies had swindled billions of rupees, stashed away in foreign banks. The point is that the BJP’s victory in three states is no guarantee that it would win the 2024 elections.

A little statistics will reveal the truth. The Congress secured 49,077,907 votes against 48,133,463 votes the BJP received. That means the Congress won 9.44 lakh more votes than the BJP. There was not much difference between the voting percentages of these two parties in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP did better by getting 8 percent more votes than the Congress.

That raises the question, how did the Congress get 9.44 lakh more votes than the BJP? The answer can be found in Telangana, where the Congress staged a spectacular comeback by winning 64 seats out of a total of 119. There was a time when the Congress was written off in the new state created in 2014.

In fact, the state would not have been formed but for the initiative Sonia Gandhi took. There were critics both within and without the Congress who questioned her decision. She stood firm, and Telangana was created. And when the party lost the election, she was accused of scoring a self-goal, but she never regretted her decision.

When the whole world calls the first chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao as the “Father of Telangana”, they forget the “Mother of Telangana”. It should be said in fairness to Telangana Chief Minister Anumula Revanath Reddy that he remembered the role of Gandhi in the creation of Telangana. He went to the stadium in Hyderabad to be sworn in as Chief Minister with Sonia Gandhi beside him in an open jeep.

The Congress seems to have learned its lessons. Reddy was relatively new in the Congress, but it was under his leadership that the grand old party won the elections. The party took no time in deciding in his favour. The Congress was able to form a full-fledged Cabinet and have all the ministers, including a Deputy Chief Minister, sworn in on the same day. A few years ago, it was a delay on the part of the Congress that helped the BJP to form a government in Goa. Once bitten, twice shy!

In contrast, the BJP has not been able to select its chief ministers in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh till the time of writing. There are many claimants for the posts. Early this year, it took many months for the BJP to choose the leader of Opposition in Karnataka. The Congress also took another decision of great significance. It asked Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh to leave the leadership of the state Congress.

It was his inability to keep Jyotiraditya Scindia of Gwalior, which resulted in the Congress losing power in the state. He has been treating Madhya Pradesh virtually as his fiefdom. I remember the day he was fielded for the first time as the Congress candidate from Chhindwara in the seventies.

When his name appeared in an agency report, my senior colleague, L.S. Herdenia, did not know who he was. He was one reporter who was on first-name terms with every politician of significance in Madhya Pradesh. He had never heard, let alone seen, Kamal Nath’s name. He found it shameful that he did not know a person the Congress chose for the Lok Sabha seat.

Late that evening, Herdenia contacted several state Congress leaders, none of whom had heard his name. Finally, we heard that he was a businessman from Calcutta, who studied with Sanjay Gandhi at Doon Public School. Sooner than later, Kamal Nath became so powerful that he retained Chhindwara even when the Congress was trounced following the imposition of Emergency. Small wonder that Chhindwara became synonymous with Kamal Nath.

Having said this, it must also be added that he had been competing with the BJP for the same political space. As a result, Kamal Nath never felt comfortable taking up secular issues. He would rather lend his hand to issues initiated by the supporters of Hindutva. Temple-going and pujas became more important than supporting the campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Once upon a time, the Congress in MP had formidable leaders belonging to the Muslim community. Where are they now?

What I said about Kamal Nath is true about the outgoing Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. He seemed to be under the impression that the only way to win the election was by proving to the voters that he was a greater Hindu than his BJP rivals like his predecessor Raman Singh. He saw virtues in promoting cow urine to the point that the government started selling it. He never missed an opportunity to exploit the state’s supposed link with the events narrated by Sant Tulsi Das’ Ramacharitamanas.

His government would periodically organise Ramayana festivals on the assumption that only devout Hindu tourists visited Chhattisgarh. The BJP saw a window of opportunity in Baghel’s espousal of soft Hindutva. They began to attack the Christian community. A vicious campaign was unleashed against them. Thousands of Christians had to leave their ancestral villages under the Parivar pressure. The police did nothing to prevent the exodus.

Baghel feared that if he took action against the Sanghis, he would lose his vote bank. In the end, he lost morally even before he lost electorally. In Rajasthan, it was a different ball game. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot could have become the president of the Congress if he was willing to sacrifice the post of Chief Minister.

He was not prepared to sacrifice. Had he quit in favour of a much younger Sachin Pilot, the party could have swept the polls. Since he found his seat more important for him than the party, the voters began to see him in a different light. The community of Pilot voted against the Congress in areas where the Gujjars were strong, of course, except in his own constituency. This cost the party a lot.

Otherwise, the Congress could have retained Rajasthan where the margin of difference between the Congress and the BJP was not much. Gehlot has reached a stage in life when he should think of political retirement. To return to the 2024 elections, I read a very interesting article by Yogendra Yadav who is an activist, psephologist, and politician whose primary interests are in the political and social sciences.

He argues that if the BJP and the Congress get the same number of votes in the four states in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP would lose 19 seats and the Congress would gain 22 seats. Of course, Yadav’s analysis may be too clever by half because he overlooks the fact that the BJP secured about 50 lakh more votes in Rajasthan, MP, and Chhattisgarh than the Congress. 

The situation changes only when the votes in Telangana are included. Nonetheless, there is an element of truth in what he says. It is like the straw that the Congress can clutch at when the BJP says it is drowning.

Be that as it may, nobody would deny that the BJP, having reached its peak in the 2019 elections, can only come down. Where else can a mountaineer go after climbing Everest? He can only climb smaller peaks. The point is, a lot more can happen between now and the next elections.

For instance, MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh are bipolar states. The Congress could have made some sacrifice for the Samajwadi Party in MP. If all the constituents of the Opposition alliance called I.N.D.I.A fight unitedly, it is possible to unseat the BJP.

Take the case of Himachal Pradesh, which is a predominantly Hindu state. The percentage of minorities is the lowest there. Among the Hindus, a majority belongs to the Upper Castes. It is an ideal Hindu state but in the elections, the Congress won a decisive victory. The Aam Aadmi Party was encouraged by the BJP to contest and split the votes. Unfortunately for the BJP, AAP lost its security deposit in most constituencies.

If a similar situation is created in the rest of the country, Modi will find the task to remain in power extremely difficult. Of course, the Congress alone cannot be expected to sacrifice. Others should also chip in. Then what seems to be impossible at present will become possible! 

ajphilip@gmail.com

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