Weed out the Congress 'veterans'

It will be sometime before the depth of Narendra Modi’s electoral sweep sinks in and a much longer time before the phenomenon is better understood. The Prime Minister was right in telling his party workers that this country has truly given him a lot and that political pundits will have to revisit all their understanding of the country and the aspirations of the people. There are many explanations on offer and all of them probably contributed to the Modi juggernaut. But even taken together, they may not fully explain the enormity of the victory and the scale or depth of change this represents. The 2019 victory is more special and far more significant than the one in 2014 in that it clearly establishes the BJP as a national party that enjoys popular appeal. This is not a vote on the rebound; it is rather a cool and calculated and affirmative vote in favour of a party that has, it would appear, caught the imagination of the people. It stands today as the only national party that is growing its base of supporters while debunking positions and niceties that have been considered must- haves for a political party in the Indian context. This is reflected as much in the electoral numbers of the BJP as it is in the decimation of the Opposition and the manner in which those considered giants were slayed, including Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, the seat that has always been with the Congress.

The 2019 victory is more special and far more significant than the one in 2014 in that it clearly establishes the BJP as a national party that enjoys popular appeal. This is not a vote on the rebound; it is rather a cool and calculated and affirmative vote in favour of a party that has, it would appear, caught the imagination of the people. It stands today as the only national party that is growing its base of supporters while debunking positions and niceties that have been considered must- haves for a political party in the Indian context.

A complete sweep

It is true that the BJP carried a divisive agenda, that it dragged the armed forces into the electoral battle by bringing the retaliatory air strikes on Balakot in Pakistan into election rallies and ran a campaign that virtually turned away the focus from what might be considered everyday issues of the people. Is this a good enough explanation of its sweeping victory? Other reasons can be added post facto: The cohesiveness and superior poll machinery of the BJP contrasted with rag-tag alternatives and patchwork alliances; the Congress fighting hard but largely trapped in its old ways of working, the lack of a clean choice against Modi as the strongman; the clear money power of the BJP; the influence of direct transfers of subsidies, the deep polarisation caused by the BJP.

But beyond this, something deeper appears to have moved such that caste has been obliterated at least when it comes to voting patterns, demonetisation is forgotten, the traders have excused the poor implementation of the GST, the economy in a downturn has not dented the government, the dictatorial tendencies of the leader have not brought any downside and allegations of corruption on the Rafale deal have not stuck. The Prime Minister himself has pointed out three features – that there was no talk of price rise this election, no party spoke of secularism in the campaign (“this tribe has stopped speaking,” he said) and allegations on corruption were not an issue in the elections (they were an issue but the issue did not fire with the electorate).

The so-called veterans are no more than old timers who are associated with the kind of politics that is despised, the kind that makes people turn away from politics. There were many jokes on Modi but the jokes on the Opposition leaders are age-old and are not recounted just because the jokes look as tired as these leaders themselves.

On secularism, in fact, reports have it that key Congress candidates made it a point to play the Hindu card. In Bhopal, the Congress party’s high-profile candidate Digvijay Singh tried to out-saffron the saffron party’s loose-talking Pragya Thakur, who called Nathuram Godse a patriot. The veteran Congressman lost to the novice, an accused in a terror conspiracy, by a margin of over 3.5 lakh votes. So, if the game is the Hindu card, why not go with the party that plays it openly and takes a clear position rather than the one playing the “soft” version of the same card?

The so-called “veterans”

That brings up a very important question for the Opposition parties, in particular the Congress. Who really are the veterans and what do they stand for? Who really was the opposition to the BJP’s well-oiled machinery that spun its story, often sharply but also fumbling and mumbling along the way? The fact is that there is a sense of fatigue with the kind of choices that the Opposition in India has offered. The so-called veterans are no more than old timers who are associated with the kind of politics that is despised, the kind that makes people turn away from politics. There were many jokes on Modi but the jokes on the Opposition leaders are age-old and are not recounted just because the jokes look as tired as these leaders themselves. For example, in Maharashtra, it is well-known that less than 100 Maratha families dominate local politics, cooperatives and politics, so complete a family control that elections are almost a farce. The BJP is not free from dynasty but it is not as much subsumed into the culture of spoils in the family as the other parties, and particularly the Congress. It is not surprising that the sons of the so-called veterans lost. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav Gehlot, Murli Deora’s son Milind Deora, who was endorsed by the industrialist Mukesh Ambani and headed the Mumbai Congress, Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil Kumaraswamy, and Sharad Pawar’s grand nephew and Ajit Pawar’s son Parth – all lost in their traditional strongholds. In contrast, the BJP changed many of its MPs and brought in newer faces.

Modi-magic or…

 Given the extent of the BJP victory, it is still tempting to offer the explanation that there is a Modi-magic at work. Here is a superman who is capable of playing with the emotions of the people of India, leading them Pied Piper-like along a path that people are all too willing to walk and unmindful of where it leads. This is the explanation that speaks of a supremo who can lead us to a new place – the description of that new place will vary – a bold new India or a divided and broken down nation -- depending on who offers that description. But equally, it is possible to look at the confluence of events and argue that the Opposition remains way too short of what it must offer to make a dent. There is a lot of clamour for the exit of the dynasty and of the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as the President of the Congress party. His offer to quit and subsequently being persuaded not to quit, is an old joke being re-run. But curiously, he was the new face of this election. The problem probably lies with the old guard and this column has often argued that a new Congress with the old guard controlling the levers will not be able to challenge the BJP in its current avatar.

The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)