Upbeat Congress

The Congress expects the inevitable slide in the BJP’s popularity to work in its favour in 2019, a perception buoyed up by byelection results in the Hindi heartland.

Published : Mar 28, 2018 12:30 IST

Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the 84th Congress plenary session in New Delhi on March 18.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the 84th Congress plenary session in New Delhi on March 18.

WHEN NAVJOT SINGH SIDHU declared on March 18 that Rahul Gandhi would unfurl the tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort in 2019 as Prime Minister, delegates at the Congress plenary in New Delhi, where Rahul Gandhi formally took over as party president, went berserk, shouting and cheering, while a glowing Sonia Gandhi and her son looked on. Sidhu, who crossed over from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Congress just before the Punjab Assembly elections last year and is a Minister in the Congress government in Punjab, was addressing the two-day plenary on its concluding day. The rapturous response to what he said seemed to have enthused Rahul Gandhi, whose address followed Sidhu’s. At any rate, Rahul Gandhi launched a frontal attack on the Prime Minister, his most personal and aggressive so far.

“Modi ji thinks he is an avatar of God…. Modi is not fighting corruption, he is corruption,” Rahul Gandhi declared. He commented that Modi shared his surname with someone (Nirav Modi) who carried out the “biggest theft” and also with “the most corrupt man in cricket” (Lalit Modi). “The name Modi symbolises the collusion between India’s biggest crony capitalists and the Prime Minister of India,” he said. Mocking Modi for organising fancy events such as “Yoga day” when people were suffering, he said that at a time when there were no jobs and farmers were committing suicide, and when trade and business had been ruined because of demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST), the Prime Minister was saying “Come let us do yoga”.

Pitching the 2019 Lok Sabha election as a “Mahabharata”, he said the battle was between truth and lies. Lies, as doled out by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) who were like the Kauravas, and truth as represented by the Congress, which, like the Pandavas, would fight, and truth would emerge victorious. He exhorted the workers to unite, forget their personal rivalries, and fight together in this battle for truth. “Fight among yourselves as much as you want, but after the elections,” he told the delegates, who cheered lustily.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also in a completely new, aggressive avatar, and so was former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. While Manmohan Singh lashed out at the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for “messing up the economy” and indulging in “ jumlabaaji style politics” which had resulted in insecure borders and empty promises, Chidambaram took the government to task for squandering a golden opportunity for economic growth through reckless and bizarre policy decisions such as demonetisation and GST. He said for every economic problem the government’s response seemed to be propaganda, sloganeering and manufactured statistics. “One party which can pull the country out of this crisis is the Congress party. I say that not out of arrogance, not out of conceit. I say that because we have done it before and we will do it again,” he said. He added that the past four years had been like a bad dream. “We will come back with friends and allies. We can do it.”

The optimism reflected in all the speeches, coming soon after humiliating electoral setbacks, was apparently puzzling. The Congress lost its deposit in two Lok Sabha byelections in Uttar Pradesh; Phulpur and Gorakhpur went to the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which had joined hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Phulpur, the Congress’ Manish Mishra finished a poor fourth, with only 19,353 votes. Even Atiq Ahmad, an independent candidate with a chequered history, polled 48,094 votes. In Gorakhpur, the Congress candidate, Dr Surheeta Karim, finished a poor third with 18,858 votes.

The party drew a blank in the Assembly elections in Tripura, where it had been the main opposition for many years and where its vote share had always hovered around 35-36 per cent. This time it plummeted to just 1.8 per cent. In Meghalaya, where it was in power, the Congress failed to form the government even though it won 21 of the 59 seats. The BJP, with just two seats, formed the government with regional parties. The scenario could not have been more dismal for the Congress. So whence come the tall hopes?

Senior party leaders, who did not want to be named, said it was a question of simple arithmetic. Congress leaders do not expect the BJP, which in 2014 won 73 of the 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh, all the seats in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, 33 out of the 40 seats in Bihar, and 42 of 48 in Maharashtra, to repeat the performance. The Congress will automatically gain as the BJP loses ground. A senior leader said: “The BJP’s core area is not the north-eastern region, which witnessed a saffron surge, but the Hindi heartland in the northern plains, and here it has already reached its optimum in 2014. There is no way it can increase the tally, it will only come down, and here lies our opportunity.”

Byelections show BJP slide

According to this leader, the signals are heartening from the States where the Congress is in direct contest with the BJP. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP won 25 of 27 seats in 2014, the latest trends indicate a change in the mood. The Congress won in two Assembly byelections held last year, in Chitrakoot and Ater. In Rajasthan, where the BJP had won all the 25 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress wrested the Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats in recently held byelections. In Ajmer, the Congress’ Raghu Sharma defeated the BJP’s Ramswarup Lamba by more than one lakh votes. In Alwar, Dr Karan Singh Yadav of the Congress defeated the BJP’s Dr Jaswant Singh Yadav by over two lakh votes.

In Gujarat too, Congress leaders hope that the BJP, which won all the 26 parliamentary seats in 2014, will lose some in 2019. In the Assembly elections held last year, the Congress joined hands with regional mass movement leaders Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani. It was a pragmatic move that succeeded in reducing the BJP’s tally to 99 seats, a far cry from the 150 seats it had expected.

A senior Congress leader said: “There is a change in the people’s mood. In 2014, the atmosphere was such that we could not counter corruption charges against our government and could not even confidently talk about our achievements. The people, who had been mesmerised by Modi’s media blitzkrieg, were just not willing to listen to us. That mood is changing now because Modi’s lies have been exposed.”

According to the Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmad, the Congress lost in 2014 partly because the media, particularly the electronic media owned by corporate groups, had been bought over by the BJP and they hyped up Modi’s perceived charisma. “The corporate world wanted its puppet as the Prime Minister and the [electronic] media obliged. But the media, too, are changing their tone; after all, they too have to maintain their credibility, otherwise people will stop believing what they show,” he said. He cited a clip from the recent leadership conclave organised by the India Today group where as soon as one speaker said “ Modiji ke kaam ...” the audience burst into guffaws, not even allowing him to complete his sentence. According to Shakeel Ahmad, the party’s dismal showing in Phulpur and Gorakhpur has only reaffirmed the perception that in places where the party is not strong, it should join forces with like-minded parties. “Wherever the party is in a direct contest with the BJP, it should fight alone, and where there is a multipolar fight and it is not strong, it should join hands with like-minded secular parties—such as the S.P. and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and the RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal] in Bihar.”

“But this has to be a State-specific strategy,” he added, citing the example of West Bengal where, he said, the party would have to weigh its options to decide whether to join hands with the Trinamool Congress or the Left. “But one thing I can say with confidence is that there will be a mahagathbandhan [grand alliance] in 2019, which will be State-specific. The non-BJP parties will join hands to restore democracy.”

As for who would lead this grand alliance, he said that would be decided after the elections on the basis of the respective strengths of the parties. “Since the Congress is the only other national party with a truly pan-India presence, it is natural that the Congress will lead such a mahagathbandhan,” he said.

reaching out to regional parties

If senior Congress leaders are to be believed, Sonia Gandhi, who continues to be the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson, has started the dialogue with regional parties in right earnest. Recently, she hosted a dinner that was attended by representatives of 20 parties. Senior leaders also say that the leadership change at the helm and the resultant young look of the party should work in its favour. Rahul Gandhi, they said, was serious about bringing in new and fresh faces to the organisation. He even declared his intent in his speech at the plenary, saying that this, however, would be done with love and respect. Interestingly, the stage at the plenary, unlike such events in the past, was virtually empty except for a podium for the speaker. All leaders were seated on the ground amid party workers. Rahul Gandhi’s clarion call for “breaking the walls between leaders and workers” was cheered loudly by the delegates when he said he had cleared the stage for the young to take over. Whether such tricks will result in a good fight in the elections remains to be seen, but the mood at the plenary definitely showed that party workers were raring to fight, unlike in 2014 when the mood was so downcast that halfway through the elections, Congress workers disappeared from the campaign in most areas.

Besides, senior Congress leaders believe that the Modi wave is over. “The Modi bubble has burst. People have realised that his tall promises were all lies: jobs for all, Rs.15 lakh in every Indian’s account, all this was a sham. He has not fulfilled a single promise. On the contrary, he has only repackaged our schemes and programmes, tom-tomming them as his own. Even that he has not done properly. Nakal ke liye bhi akal chahiye [you need brains even to copy]. People are not fools,” a senior leader said. According to him, the sufferings caused by demonetisation and the faulty implementation of GST and Aadhaar would go against Modi.

But political observers are cautious about writing off Modi yet. According to Yogendra Yadav, who helped found the Aam Aadmi Party, it is true that the Modi government’s image has taken a beating, what with the Punjab National Bank scam and the Rafale scandal, but the Congress must show an innovative and imaginative leadership style and creativity to connect with the people instead of passively waiting to be the automatic beneficiary of the BJP’s slide. “There is not much to show any of this yet,” he said.

But even he conceded that Rahul Gandhi had lately shown some maturity. He proved that he was not afraid of experimenting by allying with Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and by collaborating with Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat. He also has a clean image so far. Political observers are of the view that Rahul Gandhi’s youthful image and his thrust on giving opportunities to fresh and young people may turn out to be a catalyst in 2019.

Senior Congress leaders also see a similarity between Modi’s “Acche din” slogan and the NDA’s “Shining India” slogan of 2004. “With Shining India riding the wave, with Atalji [Atal Bihari Vajpayee] as Prime Minister, and the Congress with no face to project, who could have thought that the BJP would be defeated? We have full faith in the people’s wisdom and will try and do what we can to the best of our capability,” a senior Congress leader said.

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