By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The spring of hope has arrived at last. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its powerful propaganda machine had pitched this as a contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi — Namdar versus Kamdar (the entitled one vs someone who has worked his way up). And the voters have spoken what they think of the performance of Kamdar! The Indians have rejected the politics of hate.
The BJP went to absurd lengths to win the just-concluded elections in five states. Prime Minister Modi himself led from the front launching unbelievably personal attacks on the Congress leadership, not sparing even a convalescing Sonia Gandhi and the long-deceased icons of the Gandhi-Nehru family.
The Hindutva brigade tried every trick in its book to polarize and split the electorate along sectarian lines with Yogi Adityanath and others addressing hundreds of public meetings spreading sweetness and light and promising the kind of anarchy Uttar Pradesh boasts today.
Yet if the Congress has managed to win and carry these big Hindi heartland states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – the credit goes to Rahul Gandhi and young leaders like Sachin Pilot.
The success arriving as it did on the day Rahul completed one year at the helm of the grand old party couldn’t have been sweeter considering the open hostility and witch hunt that he has faced at the hands of the saffron clan and much of the ‘Modi-fied’ media.
From being endlessly ridiculed as Pappu (idiot) to being questioned on his very ‘Indianness’ and leadership and communication skills, Rahul has been the target of an incredibly vicious campaign for the past five years and more. And it has been personally led by none other than Modi himself deliberately distorting every word uttered by the opposition leader.
This is why Rahul has every reason to pat himself on the back for not just standing up to the BJP and weathering its vicious attacks but coming off with flying colors.
The Congress leader has remained humble and gracious in his victory, never once crowing after capturing the three strategic BJP fortresses.
It had been a totally one-sided contest from the word go. A typical David versus Goliath kind of battle, if ever there was one. Not a mean feat considering the massive resources and big moneybags at the BJP’s disposal and the unabashed support it has been receiving from the media.
Yet given the overwhelming popular anger and rural distress in these battleground states over the continuing devastating effects of demonetization, GST and the anti-incumbency factor, it is surprising that the Congress did not register a far emphatic victory. The BJP managed to put up a strong show both in MP and Rajasthan, losing many seats by a couple of hundred votes or even less.
Which means although the saffron brigade may have lost these assembly polls thanks to its disastrous management of the economy and neglecting farmers, its core constituency largely remains intact.
The toxic influence of the RSS now pervades all arms and sinews of the body politic. From the government and administration to bureaucracy and from universities and think tanks to the media, no area remains free of its sway. Secular parties will, therefore, have to work harder to fight this permissive influence for the sake of their own future and survival, if not for anything else.
And now that the BJP has suffered these losses in these critical states, seen as the core of the party’s ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ worldview, it is certain that its battle-hardened election-winning machine led by Modi and Amit Shah will pull out all stops for the greater battle ahead in 2019.
Is the opposition up to the task? While this much-needed victory has understandably lifted the mood in the long-demoralized and dispirited Congress and other opposition parties, the battle ahead is hardly going to be an easy one.
With its back to the wall, the BJP is sure to fight even harder and will do everything to retain power. Justice Markandey Katju’s apprehensions that a desperate Parivar could start a major communal conflagration or even a war with Pakistan to rally popular support aren’t without basis.
The only way for the secular opposition parties to fight the BJP and its powerful Parivar is to rally all their forces and put up a united fight. Nothing else is going to work.
Notwithstanding the vital lessons of Karnataka, where a last-minute Congress-Janata Dal (S) coalition was able to keep out the BJP, the grand old party spurned fellow travelers such as the BSP and SP and chose to go it alone in both MP and Rajasthan.
If only the Congress had tied up with secular parties, the electoral tally in these states that would elect 65 MPs in 2019 would have been decidedly better.
Of course, Telangana has been an exception. The Congress’ partnership with Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam, once bitter rivals, did not take off because of the far more irresistible alternative that was offered by Chandrashekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti.
In addition to its formidable alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, what really worked for the TRS was its unprecedented welfare measures targeting virtually every section of the electorate. The Muslim community, for instance, has benefited much from the 121 minority residential schools established by the Telangana government. This is why Rahul’s rallies with Naidu in what had once been a Congress bastion failed to sway the voters.
Yet an accommodative approach by the Congress and other secular stakeholders is what is badly needed in months and years ahead.
What will it take for the grand old party to come off its high horse? The Congress holds the key to opposition’s challenge to Modi. After all, it is the only national party with presence in all parts of the country. It remains the only force that can stop the saffron juggernaut. The Congress holds the lynchpin to opposition’s grand alliance against the ideology of hate.
Yet at a time when it is fighting for its very survival across the country, the Congress inexplicably continues to harbor these delusions of grandeur and has repeatedly failed to reach out to other secular parties.
The BJP has always been quick to cobble up alliances. Indeed, the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani grew from a 2-member outfit to its overarching presence today, riding on the shoulders of its allies like the Janata Dal of yore. It acquired a pan-India acceptability cleverly using its secular allies.
When will the Congress wake up to the new political realities of a new India? The answer holds the key to 2019 and the nation’s future. Only a more flexible and nimble-footed Congress that is willing to walk the proverbial extra mile to put together a rainbow coalition can prevent the BJP from returning to power.
What lies ahead is not just a battle between the BJP and Congress or between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. At stake is the very idea of a democratic and inclusive India.