Indian voters in the heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have sent out unambiguous messages and set in motion the process of reversing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tilt in politics when the party secured a majority in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the parliament) and ruled over 19 states.
One is the old warning about pride preceding a fall. The hyperbole of BJP president Amit Shah’s declaration that his party will rule for 50 years has been shown to be so much hot air as has been the observation of a loyal mandarin, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, that the country needs a strong, stable government — obviously meaning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule — for the next 10 years.
It was in keeping with these grandiose assertions that the BJP built the world’s tallest statue — of Congress stalwart Vallabhbhai Patel, whom the BJP can be said to have misappropriated from the Congress — and announced the plans for an almost equally large statue of Lord Ram.
But none of these achievements and claims has saved it from a 0-3 drubbing at the hustings in the Hindi heartland. The lesson from this electoral whitewash of the three BJP-ruled states is that no mercy can be expected from the electorate for the Modi government’s failure to keep the promise of vikas or development. It is obvious that economic stagnation and agricultural distress have spelt the doom for BJP.
The second message from the results is that Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in exposing the falsity of the charges that had been levelled against him ever since he came into politics. Yet, neither being derisively called “Pappu” or an adolescent child, or of being a “pathological liar”, to quote Arun Jaitley, had any effect on his emergence as a capable leader, who took the lead in addressing the media after the recent opposition conclave while veterans such as Sharad Pawar and H.D. Deve Gowda remained in the background.
It is now apparent after the Congress’ success in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that Rahul will increasingly be in the forefront of the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) efforts, especially when the other major convener of the alliance, Chandrababu Naidu, has suffered a setback because of his Telugu Desam Party’s poor showing in the Telangana elections.
With the Congress president taking centre stage, the 2019 general election is likely to turn into a presidential-style contest between Rahul and Modi. Up until last Tuesday, the BJP would have looked forward to such an unequal fight, in its view, between Rahul and the BJP’s hero with his macho image.
But no longer. Now, it will be a confrontation between the youthful standard-bearer of a rejuvenated party and the ageing leader of an organisation that is seen to be on a slippery slope because of failures on several fronts — economic, administrative as the disarray in the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Reserve Bank of India shows, and an “inability — whether inadvertently or by design — to rein in the Hindutva stormtroopers.
It is possible that these Hindu militants were let loose with one of the BJP’s chief propagandists, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, instigating them with his venomous Ali-Bajrang Bali communal polarisation because the party had been sensing for quite some time — presumably after its setbacks in Karnataka — that it was losing ground.
Seeing the receding mirage of the Hindu rashtra (state), which was thought by the saffron brotherhood to be within reach because of the BJP’s political clout, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), purportedly a “cultural” organisation, jumped into the fray with its demand for the immediate enactment of a law for constructing the Ram temple. Its calculation was that the law would shore up the BJP’s sagging political fortunes by mobilising the Hindus behind the party. If BJP member of parliament Subramanian Swamy is to be believed, it is the drive for Hindutva that enthuses the saffron cadres and brings in votes for the party, and not development.
But the ploy, which included a pledge by the RSS to revive the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of 1992-1993, which led to the Babri Masjid’s demolition, failed to check the Congress’ revival and the signs of erosion of the BJP’s base of support.
Now that a presidential-style contest is on the cards, it will be advisable for Rahul to live up to the lesson that he says he has learnt from Modi’s mistake — that of a lack of humility because “arrogance is fatal for a politician”.
While the prime minister has tweeted his acceptance of the people’s “mandate”, some of the spokespersons of the BJP and the RSS have been describing the Congress’s success in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as “accidental” because of the marginal difference in the vote share of the two parties.
The BJP is unwilling to accept a result that has upended its dream of ushering in a Congress-mukt (free) India.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst, based in India.