The Congress is up against a nasty adversary. Playing within the BJP’s comfort zone will be like trying to defeat Nadal on red clay. It must force its rival to a surface where the ball skids faster
I must admit to being gobsmacked when the election results gathered momentum and the inevitable stared me in the face. Disappointment would be a severe understatement, I was completely devastated. The numbers seemed unreal, fictitious, as the BJP counter clocked above 300 while that of the Congress party plateaued around 50. A historic mandate, screamed one channel; an unprecedented landslide, suggested another. For once, their egregious hyperbole was not misplaced. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a triumphant return, and in fact, bettered his previous performance of 2014 of 282 seats. I say Modi’s victory and not that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that he represents because essentially general elections 2019 became like a US presidential contest, where a personality-centric pitch overwhelmed compelling issues that most thought would be the determining factors affecting voter sentiment. That was not to be. There are reports that many voters did not even know the name of the Lok Sabha candidate they were voting for; just the lotus symbol on the EVM machine was sufficient motivation. Not unexpectedly, Congress was facing the predictable onslaught of acerbic scrutiny marinated with dollops of unrestrained sarcasm; is the party now facing an irreversible terminal decline? Did NYAY (the Minimum Income Guarantee scheme) fail to percolate down to the last mile? Was the campaign strategy flawed ? Was the Congress party unable to answer Modi’s rhetorical fusillade of the Grand Old Party being soft on terror? Some partially saffronised TV anchors could barely conceal their schadenfreude when mocking the Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. For many of us, it was a dark dismal nightmare. We have seen it before in 2014. But this one hurt a lot more.
The BJP has indulged in asymmetrical warfare with a bountiful treasury, chaperoned by a captivated mainstream media and backed by rent-seeking corporate behemoths who are opportunistic accessories with big ticket deals to formalise. The traditional template of political contestations stood completely upended by the time the victor was formally announced. So where does the Congress party go from not aggregating even 100 Lok Sabha seats in two consecutive elections, while up against a formidable monstrosity that has made winning elections its raison d’etre? To understand that, first we need to know what really happened.
Modi and BJP president Amit Shah had clearly recognised the clear and present danger following the Congress party wins in the State elections of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in December 2018. This electoral adversity followed the sledgehammer blow in Karnataka when the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) formed the government, by checkmating the BJP’s Chanakya. Rahul Gandhi was seeing stratospheric traction on social media, and his relentless assault on Modi on the Rafale corruption scandal, had created a popular leitmotif of Chowkidar Chor Hai. Frequent interactions with different sections of people without a pre-arranged script, impromptu press conferences and a refreshingly honest politician, who talked compassionate politics, had the toxic BJP nonplussed. Despite a prodigiously jaundiced media that was sand-bagging Modi, the perception battle had now become a competitive one. And Modi was feeling the cracks. The farming community was facing diminishing incomes due to falling procurement and lower prices while Modi dilly-dallied on Minimum Support Prices. The agrarian crisis is an alarming reality and a pandemic problem. India’s storied demographic dividend has become an onerous liability, as we are confronted with an epic catastrophe on job creation. The macro-economic fundamentals are a manifestation of an economy in virtual stagnation. Demonetisation, which was nothing but an atrocious hocus-pocus economics and the clumsy execution of Goods and Services Tax (GST) had plundered the informal economy, pauperising millions in its wake. India’s GDP appears manipulated and government data when unpalatable to Modi ( like the job numbers) have been unceremoniously dumped. The latest figures on the automobile industry sales show a conspicuous downward trend and the manufacturing sector appears to be in rigor-mortis. The stressed assets in the banking sector are kissing some dark clouds. Sum and substance, a rejuvenated and resolute Rahul Gandhi and a faltering economy had Modi outwitted, foxed. Then Pulwama happened.
For a man who sold the “development” spiel in 2014, Modi calculatedly dumped his flaky past promises which have been nothing but embarrassing snafus such as 2 crore jobs per annum, the obliteration of black money, doubling of farm incomes and creation of monochromatic smart cities, among a few. Post the terror attack at Pulwama and the Balakot counter-strike, Modi had found his 2019 trumpcard; muscular nationalism. This became for him what the Kargil war was for former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. The heart-stopping capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan and his subsequent release by Pakistan were seized by Modi as his own superman prowess that intimidated Islamabad. Ghar Me Ghus Ghus Ke Maroonga (I will enter each and every home and kill them all) was his thundering pomposity that sought to resurrect his attenuated 56” machismo. People whistled and clapped like they once did watching Amitabh Bachchan bash up goons in Deewaar.
The new global authoritarian leader is now an elected autocrat who presides over an illiberal democracy. For him the most marketable weapon is fear; Islamophobia is popular political currency. An enemy at the border is usually enough. Modi found one at home too. His speech at Wardha, Maharashtra, lambasted Rahul Gandhi for contesting from Wayanad in Kerala because it was a Hindu-minority parliamentary constituency. This was scare-mongering, and an “othering” of the fellow Indian. A Prime Minister takes an oath on India’s Constitution to embody its consecrated principles in his impartial political conduct; Modi cast them aside, making his preferred religious choice publicly known. It was dog-whistle politics. As the votes closed in on May 23, it was clear Modi’s stratagem worked. And how.
In 2014, there were large billboards in Marine Drive, Mumbai that had Modi vaingloriously promoted as a Hindu Hriday Samrat. This time the BJP chose another Hindutva icon, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. The political messaging behind the questionable choice was unambiguous; even a terror-accused allegedly responsible for a bomb blast that killed six persons in Malegaon and injured several from the minority community was kosher. Modi was legitimising an orchestrated violent attack, even proposing to give the controversial candidate a haloed seat in the Parliament. It was an abject low even by BJP’s polarising standards. But there it was. For Thakur, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse was a patriot. Thakur’s electoral victory from Bhopal on May 23 is perhaps the defining moment of this election, and of the reshaping of India.
The Congress party will have to aggressively defend the Indian Constitution, which is being systematically annihilated by ridiculing its quintessential credo. It is an ideological war where BJP’s Hindutva enterprise cleverly disguised through cultural nationalism is getting fresh tailwinds. First, the BJP trivialised communal harmony by creating the term pseudo-secular, and now the Indian liberal is called an Urban Naxal. The Saffron Project is to gradually infiltrate institutions and convert impressionable Indians through religious chauvinism. The Congress faces an arduous challenge given BJP’s propaganda machine, social media troll army and the WhatsApp fake news manufacturing capabilities. The party is up against a nasty adversary that has altered the rules of the game. Playing within the BJP’s comfort zone will be like trying to defeat Rafael Nadal on red clay at the French Open. There is only one option; force your opponent to a surface where the ball skids faster and the grass is green.
The Congress party will have to reinvent the political discourse, while simultaneously maximising its enormous human talent currently performing at low productivity on account of bureaucratic cholesterol in its organisational structure. Internal disorganisation is costing the party dear, as was expressed by the Congress president himself. There is tremendous energy that needs to be liberated for the great struggle ahead. It is time to take bold pragmatic risks, be unpredictable and practise political plasticity. There is too much at stake. It is a battle that must be won.
Rahul Gandhi correctly said that the 2019 election was a battle for India’s soul. That soul is today splintered into smithereens. But the soul is indestructible. And it will find its voice again.
(The author is a national spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. The views are his own.)
Writer: Sanjay Jha
Courtesy: The Pioneer