Any political party that aspires to get the maximum numbers at the national electoral fray must have a strategy that can effectively deal with complex issues—like coalition building and seat sharing, splitting of votes by rebel candidates, manipulation of caste and religious fissures by political opponents, vote transfer between allies, dissemination of disinformation by rival parties, converting vote share into seats, the anti-incumbency factor, and drawing voters to the booths. But that strategy can only work to the advantage of a party if the party machinery is well-oiled, the party cadres are totally mobilized, there is unity of purpose among the partymen, tickets are rightly allocated, and the media and larger public are well-disposed towards the party.
In 2004, when India was ‘beginning to shine’, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Congress, from which the BJP is yet to recover. Reasons behind the BJP’s fall were not entirely about the 2002 Gujarat riots and the subsequent vote polarization in favor of the Congress, and the anti-incumbency factor. But what is little known is the despair and anguish within the Sangh Parivar (National Voluntary Corps) over the moderate leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee due to which the disheartened Sangh cadres could not be fully mobilized for the party cause. It was only after the BJP’s loss that its allies deserted the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold under one pretext or the other.
In 2009, BJP again fell short of expectations to emerge as the single largest party as it was seen as ‘obstructionist’ when Indo-US relations were on the verge of a major breakthrough with the signing of the nuclear deal, which would help India to break free from decades of nuclear apartheid (till the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal, India was denied crucial nuclear energy development technologies), while the Congress was widely appreciated for the economic surge and launching of the historic Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) program. Both public and corporate sympathy was on the Congress’ side, which helped it to clinch an overwhelming number of seats while the BJP fell by the wayside without having much to offer to the voter.
But the Congress’ battle to retain power in 2014 will be challenging. Recounting how the India story has unraveled, a noted columnist in a national daily wrote recently, “the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 2 government has potholed our national highways, shot down our dreams of a million jets dotting the Indian sky, tripped our power supply, ruined higher education, throttled industrial enterprise, sent money down the NREGA drain, precipitated an agricultural crisis, resorted to secularism blackmail, etc, etc.” Though a slew of corrective measures have been taken up over the past year to light up the national mood, the efforts have failed to resonate with the people. Those steps include the passage of the Pension Bill, Food Security Bill, Direct Cash Transfer Bill, Land Acquisition Bill and the New Companies Bill. On the Food Security Bill, touted as a game-changer, questions have been raised whether a sliding economy can support such a massive populist program. While there are others who suggest that since the scheme is not universal, the poorest households will be left behind due to the inherent weaknesses in the delivery system. The government has also fast-tracked public sector investments and constituted the Tax Administration Commission. To spur industrial growth, UPA has set up a special Cabinet Committee on Investments which has cleared projects worth $ 30 billion and a special group in the Cabinet secretariat to monitor big ticket projects. The government has further relaxed Foreign Direct Investment in sensitive sectors like multi-brand retail, defense and telecom despite stiff opposition.
But the crushing burden of soaring energy prices, high inflation, plummeting value of the rupee, rising unemployment and deteriorating law and order have failed to lift the public spirit. Apart from the economic slump, there are several allegations against the Congress, such as that it is frittering away of public resources for self-aggrandizement through the ‘Bharat Nirman’ (Building India) campaign, akin to the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign (whichwas not of much leverage to the BJP); curtailing gold imports to arrest the outflow of dollars (India is the second largest buyer of gold from the international market, which it has to pay for in US dollars), though such curbs could abet smuggling; a lackadaisical attitude in defending India’s borders with border skirmishes and incursions becoming the order of the day; wheeling and dealing in signing defense contracts; and the politically motivated decision of creating Telangana ( a new state to be carved out of the existing state of Andhra Pradesh) without due consideration of its fallout (the creation of Telanagana has fuelled other statehood movements like Gorkhaland, Garoland, Kamatpur, Vidharbha, Bodoland and so on. If India were to be divided on ethnic lines, there would be hundreds of states). We have almost lost track of the scams under the UPA’s watch exploding with alarming regularity. There are grave concerns over falling exports, industrial output, capital flight and heightened fears on national security in the wake of the National Security Agency’s snooping expose, something terrifying which the government has hastily brushed under the rug.
Unlike China, where the Communist Party of China has managed to keep its stranglehold over power unchallenged due to the support it derives from the dominant Han Chinese, no political party in India can hold sway over Delhi for decades at a stretch due to the shifting loyalties of countless ethnic, religious and linguistic identities that cut across the Indian landscape like its multiple river systems. Well-meaning intentions to deliver are often lost in the din of chasing votes. This paves the way for growth stagnation and policy paralysis which swells the ranks of those pitching for a change of guard. The Communists rode to power in Bengal on the back of a rebellion that ousted Congress rule, and introduced land reforms under ‘Operation Barga’ which was well-received in rural Bengal. But unbridled Left Front rule failed to meet people’s expectations and shore up the sagging economy. The Leftists stuck to the model of agrarian socialism which failed to generate much-needed employment. And when they did try to industrialize the crumbling economy without public consensus, rural Bengal rose up in revolt and they were swept out of power. In the 1980’s, Congress lost Uttar Pradesh (UP) – India’s battleground state – following the ‘Mandalisation’ (reservation for backward castes of the society) of politics. The Sangh Parivar affiliates countered it with their ‘Kamandal’ or Ram Temple movement. To win back the upper castes to the Congress fold, Rajiv Gandhi permitted the ‘shilanyas’ (foundation laying ceremony) of the Ram Temple in 1989 and his 1991 poll campaign that began from Ayodhya was high on symbolism. In 1992, P. V. Narasimha Rao (former Prime Minister) allowed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in a disastrous attempt to wrest the Temple issue from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which shattered Muslim loyalty and faith in the Congress. For the first time in history, the Congress was left without a core vote base in UP and it is struggling to find its feet back in the state ever since.
In the run up to the general elections, the media has increasingly snubbed Rahul with scathing remarks like boorish, inept, immature, impulsive and hot-headed. Congressmen refrain from pitting Rahul against Narendra Modi, cautious of playing into the hands of the BJP, but in the undeclared war between the two, Modi seems to have an edge over Rahul in the ‘lecture circuit’. In his 2010 visit to Niyamgiri, Rahul pledged his support to the tribes and declared that he would be their ‘sipahi’ (protector) in Delhi. Some would say that Congress’ policy makers took the cue from their leader literally to heart and went on to stall several mining projects which ruined the power sector and robbed the nation off vital export earnings and impeded economic growth. At one of his rallies in last year’s UP state elections, Rahul tore off a paper with poll assurances of a political party. This fit of rage in full public view was widely denunciated. L. K. Advani had once quipped that Indian people forgive corruption but not arrogance. Rahul is yet to display the administrative acumen expected of a person in line to rule a nation of 1.2 billion people. During Modi’s trip to China, he strayed from his official tour to visit the office of TBEA Energy which had hit a roadblock in commencing production of transformers at its Gujarat plant. Modi’s swift intervention impressed the Chinese of his problem fixing skills. He also won a commitment from the Chinese to invest in a greenfield textile project in his state. Had Rahul acted on the Prime Minister’s repeated reminders to join the Cabinet, his administrative skills would have come to the fore. That would have come handy for Congress managers to project Rahul as the party’s PM candidate. When devastating floods struck Uttarakhand, Rahul went ahead with his foreign visit. But Modi was quick to reach Dehradun and co-ordinate the efforts in rescuing Gujarati pilgrims. His detractors ridiculed him for not showing similar sympathy to non-Gujarati pilgrims, arguing that his actions did not behoove a person with prime ministerial ambitions, but one should bear in mind that all that Modi had done was in his capacity as the Chief Minister of a state. At that point of time, Modi was only a PM aspirant like many others in the BJP and not the ‘candidate’. It is highly expected of a leader like Rahul to play ‘Good Samaritan’ at the time of people’s distress to mobilize the youth towards a vision of ‘Ek Naya Vikalp, Ek Naya Bharat’ (a new discourse, a new India).
Critics have spewed venom at Rahul for denigrating the PM and the Cabinet by storming into Ajay Maken’s press conference and lambasting the ordinance seeking to nullify the Supreme Court judgment on convicted lawmakers. His outburst was considered as a political stunt and a damage control exercise. But what was missed out in the commentary is Rahul’s strong determination to put national interest ahead of party interests irrespective of the consequences. Here is a person who is willing to undermine the party line in the interest of the nation. To match the powerful rhetoric of Modi, Rahul must belt out an equally catchy alternative by vigorously showcasing the flagship schemes unveiled by the UPA. “Aapka paisa aapke haath” (your money in your handa) distinctly embodies the message of the Direct Cash Transfer scheme. A similar one must emerge from the Congress’ stable to promote the Food Security Act, perhaps on the lines of “Woh kehte hain Congress mukt Bharat…..Rahulji kehte hain Bhook mukt Bharat” (they call for a Congress free India….Rahul Gandhi calls for a hunger free India).