What should have been a routine Rajya Sabha election was turned by Amit Shah into a Clash of the Titans: the President of the BJP vs the President of the Indian National Congress. In the event, Shah has ended with egg on his face – or, as he is a vegetarian, should we say with malai rubbed all over his beard?
Despite resorting to every dirty trick in the book, Shah, with supreme irony, self-destructed when two Congress quislings decided to provide him with irrefutable evidence of their treachery by flaunting their ballot papers to his approving gaze. That eventually rendered those ballots null and void, handing triumph to the man, the party and the party leader that Shah had sought to destroy.
For Shah’s aim was not just to reduce a long-standing political opponent to dust. His aim was wider: to poke the Congress President in the eye and thus make a laughing stock of the Congress in the country at large. Instead, what was shredded was Shah’s assiduously cultivated image as the unbeatable Chanakya. He was shown up for what he is – a muscle-and-money operator whose dark arts single him out as unprincipled, unethical, undemocratic and unfazed in stooping to the lowest levels to attain his devious political ends. But this time he was upstaged by the Congress party’s own Chankaya who understood Shah’s underhand manipulations and deployed his own deep understanding of Gujarat’s politics to keep one step ahead.
Where Shah was banking on the venality of legislators, the Congress took no chances, whisking their band away from the threats and blandishments of the other side. To counter this, the BJP, with the shameful connivance of the central government, even moved central investigators and the central police force (without the consent of the state government – so much for “cooperative federalism”) into the resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru where the legislators were staying to keep them from being lured into the other camp. However, not even this blatant misuse of government powers intimidated the brave-hearts who have had long experience of the BJP’s shenanigans.
Now that the election is over and Ahmed Patel is assured of six more years in the Rajya Sabha, where does that leave the Congress and the Opposition generally, especially with only two years to go for the next Lok Sabha polls?
The Congress has long known that in victory, carpet-baggers clamber on to its wagon, even as in defeat, there are any number of rats waiting to jump ship. History also shows that those who leave the Congress either have a short shelf life in some non-Congress government or soon write themselves out of history. What, after all, became of the stalwarts who left the Congress in droves in the aftermath of her resounding election setback in March 1977? Soon after, scores of them, from Jagjiwan Ram and Hemvati Bahuguna to Brahmanand Reddy and Dev Kanta Borooah and C Subramanian purchased their one-way ticket to obscurity, followed by VP Singh, Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammad Khan after they ditched Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress.
So it is not a matter of any great moment that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi too have had their share of Hemanta Biswas and Shankersinh Vaghelas. Indeed, Vaghela has an unmatched record of steering the Congress to successive defeats. In retrospect, it was clearly not a good idea to pick this pillion-rider with Narendra Modi in the Nav Nirman movement of 1974 to take on Modi. Vaghela failed spectacularly, hastening his way to political nemesis. His minions counted for little when they were in the Congress and will count for even less now that they are out of it. What counts is that enough have remained with the Congress through this time of testing travails to give the party a fair shot at overthrowing the detritus that Modi left behind in Gandhinagar as he moved to Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi.
It is important to also note that two non-Congress votes contributed signally to Ahmed Patel’s victory. This signals that the way ahead lies in the Congress pro-actively stitching together the kind of state-wise rainbow coalitions that Sonia Gandhi stitched together to give the United Progressive Alliance ten years of unchallenged power in Delhi and several states. It is the unraveling of that rainbow coalition that has resulted in the setbacks of the last three years. After the UP election, the Congress waited for potential partners to show that they were willing to join hands because the Congress believed that an over-eager Congress might make potential partners apprehensive. But the presidential, vice- presidential and Gujarat RS polls – all three – have indubitably demonstrated that even when victory is not certain, abject defeat is best avoided by pooling strengths.
Within the Congress, Ahmed Patel’s victory has proved a morale booster. It has shown that the party can stop the Shah-Modi juggernaut in its tracks, even in their homeland. It is Amit Shah who has suffered a grave setback. It is he who now has to keep his flock together. The Congress and its emerging partners are now more confident than they perhaps were before Shah’s debacle in Gujarat that it is in unity that their resurrection lies. Moreover, the JD(U) president, Sharad Yadav, has demonstrated that a substantial segment of the party he leads – very possibly a strong and credible segment – remains committed to the Maha-gathbandan. It is Nitish Kumar who has rendered himself vulnerable by surrendering his minority share of the erstwhile Bihar Maha-gathbandan to the very forces he worsted at the hustings a mere two years ago. By putting together the rump JD(U) with the defeated BJP, the weak have amalgamated with the weak. Even if not in office, the logic of the Maha-gathbandan remains.
Especially as there is every chance of gaining in UP what has been lost in Bihar if Mayawati can be persuaded to throw in her lot with the Maha-gathbandan. Even in the course of the UP election, Akhilesh had indicated that Barkis was willin’. Sharad Yadav has now offered to help her return to the Rajya Sabha. The Gujarat outcome has only strengthened these overtures. Given that Mayawati polled 22% of the UP vote and the Samajwadi-Congress alliance a further 27%, making a total of 49% (against the BJP share of 38%), elementary arithmetic shows that the BJP won in UP only because the anti-BJP vote was split three ways. Modi, Shah and Yogi will all be routed in UP in 2019 if a three-way anti-BJP front were to be forged. And such a denouement would yield far more UP seats to the non-BJP front than may have been lost in Bihar to the Nitish-Sushil Modi alliance by Nitish’s defection. Perhaps the Congress should be far more upfront, far more pro-active than it has so far been in gluing together this alternative Maha-gathbandan.
And what of the Congress itself? It needs to be quickly – very quickly – told who will be leading it into the next general election. If there is a change of guard at the top, the fear that this will be followed by a Night of the Long Knives will have to be assuaged. Of course, some will go and some others will emerge, but that has always been so. What is certain is that a measure of continuity would be maintained alongside a measure of change – for that is the Congress tradition.
The wild rumours of Rahul Gandhi conniving to get Ahmed Patel out of the way were always just rubbish. Ahmed is far too important to the party’s future for him to be brushed aside. His return to the Rajya Sabha is an accretion of strength. At the same time, there is an attempt to portray Jairam Ramesh’s remarks as some kind of manifestation of dissent within our ranks. That too is far-fetched. Ramesh has recognized some unpleasant ground realities – as which of us has not? He believes new things need to be done to revive the party’s fortunes. He is yet to spell out what these “new ways” are. When he does – in a forum of his choosing – these “new” ideas would be well worth chewing over. Whether one agrees with him or not, a party that is churning out new ideas is not a party that is dead. Our shoulder is back to the wheel.