A young man, Shehzad Poonawalla, has suddenly sprung out of nowhere as the BJP’s darling. While Congresspersons scratch their heads to try to remember if they have ever heard of him, Modi and his minions see him as the perfect foil to the crescendo of support that Rahul Gandhi has received from Congress workers in every nook and corner of the country. Poonawalla seems to think the accolades should be showered on him. And while his antics secure for him the beaming blessings of Uncle Narendra-bhai, and massive media attention, his family (mother and siblings) publicly distance themselves from him, being better acquainted with his eccentricities than those of us who learned he existed only a few days ago.
Nevertheless, he is, of course, entitled to his views. He believes a Mughal-like dynastic succession is underway in the Congress. That, of course, is music to Modi’s ears, as also to a panting media that see TRPs shooting through the roof if they can keep the controversy on the boil.
Enter poor l’il me. As I attempt to jostle my way through milling crowds come to see Rahul’s election to the helm of the Congress, ubiquitous TV crews descend on me to get a take on my reaction to Poonawalla. I am usually good for a pithy quote. I have just read in the papers of Poonawalla comparing Rahul’s election to a Mughal dynastic succession. I begin, therefore, by explaining that in Mughal times, succession usually took place through a blood bath involving the sons of the ruler but whoever won would be one of the sons of the emperor. At which some Goebbels of a TV editor cried “cut” to ensure the deletion of my painstaking explanation that succession of the Mughal kind was “dynastic”, whereas what we were all witnessing at the gates of 24, Akbar Road was an election in which Poonawalla was welcome to file his nomination papers and contest, even as Jitendra Prasada had done against Sonia Gandhi in the year 2000. But all that was snipped away, circumcised as it were, to portray me as a pot-bellied, grey-haired, aging version of Poonawalla to provide grist to Modi’s mill.
Modi (and the TRP-lusting visual media) grabbed this “fake news” to claim that I was comparing Aurangzeb’s succession to succession in the Congress – when, in fact, I had contrasted Aurangzeb to Rahul to underline just how far off the mark Poonawalla (and his new-found patrons, the BJP) were in attempting to portray a democratic election of our party president as “selection”. In any case, Modi’s (and, alas, young Poonawalla’s) grasp of history is sufficiently uncertain for them to have not seen that, quite unlike Aurangzeb, Rahul was killing none of his siblings to walk through corpse-strewn battlefields to a coronation in the palace. Indeed, his only sibling, Priyanka, was rooting for him. Most important of all, there was no throne at 24, Akbar Road (which is no palace, just a rather shabby, overbuilt, ill-kept bungalow) and with no crown (except perhaps metaphorically a crown of thorns) for the successor Congress president to wear.
And so it came to pass that poor Poonawalla found himself vying with me for media attention, the difference being that he was glorying in it, while I was merely annoyed at the shenanigans in TV editors’ rooms that found snipping the quote the best way to get their advertising revenues roaring. I survived with a brief four-line clarification. Poonawalla is soon to discover that media attention is astonishingly fleeting. TV is the most trivializing medium of them all, with social media a close second. Shehzad will soon find himself forgotten.
At the same time, Rahul will find himself under close scrutiny. After a long wait, some of it self-imposed, he has now come into his own. It could be a fabulous coming of age if the CSDS poll is right and after two wasted decades of “paagal vikas”, the Congress in Gujarat draws level with the BJP in vote share. And if Rahul’s vigorous campaigning in the state actually leads to the Congress forming the government, it would be Hallelujah! Even if the Congress seriously dents the BJP ‘s present majority, it would mark the beginning of the end of Modi’s domination over the polity. But if the CSDS poll, and most observers’ estimates prove wrong, as they often have in the past, Rahul’s long slog will continue. We will know a week after Rahul is formally declared the winner of the Congress party’s own polls.
Whatever the Gujarat results, once the first frisson of excitement gives way to the routine business of governance, 2019 will loom on the horizon. Is the outcome 18 months from now a matter of mathematics or of chemistry?
I consider that a flawed question. It is not a matter of one or the other, but of both mathematics and chemistry. For, it is the mathematics that will determine the chemistry. In stark terms of votes and seats, the Congress and its (maha)gathabandhan will have to establish their credibility as a possible winning combination before the electorate begins to look beyond the elections and asks what the opposition has on offer.
Nobody is asking me, but I believe the first and most important task before Rahul is to reach out to Mayawati. Her setback in the March UP election was a mathematical illusion. While going down to ignominious defeat in terms of seats won and lost, her vote share was no less than 22 per cent. A few percentage points more and she would have been very much in the reckoning. Add Akhilesh’s 27 percent and you have Mayawati and Akhilesh together coasting comfortably to 49 percent. Add further the Congress share and M-A-R (Mayawati-Akhilesh-Rahul) top the half-way mark – and Modi becomes history while the Yogi goes back to frog-marching the Hindu Yuva Vahini.
The BJP did not win UP. It was the three opposition parties who lost it by not pooling their strength. Were they to come together for 2019, the Modi would be worsted – and the country saved.
That would be a replay of the Sonia strategy that ended Atal Behari Vajpayee’s political flight, a flight that till the counting began in mid-May 2004 was widely regarded as unstoppable. Compared to Vajpayee, Modi is a puny nothing. If Atal Behari could be brought down by Sonia and her partners, Rahul and his companions can sail through to South Block with ease – provided they first get their arithmetic right.
That arithmetic is not one equation; it is a set of equations, a different equation for each state – just as in Sonia’s 2004 victory that gave the Congress and her allies an entire decade of governance, a decade that would have stretched indefinitely into the future if the rainbow coalition had held.
It was the disintegration of that rainbow alliance that brought about the humiliating defeat of 2014, not any spectacular political legerdemain on the part of Modi-Shah that is the conventional myth. For after all the jumlabaazi, Modi’s BJP secured but 31 percent of the vote. 69 percent of the electorate failed to get the PM of their choice because they fell apart. As Abraham Lincoln said a century-and-a-half ago, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. On the other hand, a house united cannot but stand.
Once the opposition in UP coalesces, the rest comes together. Bihar will not get back its mahagathbandhan but a Lalu-led gathbandan there will be. In West Bengal, whether or not Mamata and Rahul fight together, the BJP will remain on the backburner. The North-East will be a toss-up but at least Mizoram and Tripura will not fall to the BJP. And as in Assam, and other North-East hill states, the government is primarily that of erstwhile Congress leaders. The five years beyond 2019 in North East will largely depend on who rules the roost in New Delhi. The NE hill states, in particular, tend to drift towards the government at the centre.
Odisha remains a Naveen fortress, Andhra, the Telugu Desam’s, but nether is a BJP stronghold and at least Naveen has preferred distancing himself from the BJP even if he is not inclined to side with the Congress. In Telengana, the Congress can mount a challenge to the TRS but the BJP cannot. That takes one to the Dravidian territory of Tamil Nadu where it is “winner take all” and the DMK-Congress is the clear winner. I have been often in Karnataka during this year and the roaring resurgence of Siddaramaiah is evident in the air. So also, in Kerala – neither the UDF nor LDF wish to have any truck with the Modi dispensation. So the South as a whole remains a never-never land for the BJP.
In the west, the NCP matters, above all in Maharashtra. Can the NCP and the Congress come together, either ex-ante or ex-post facto? Possibly. But a Sharad-Modi tie-up is not on the cards. In Gujarat, Modi’s fortress is being shaken at the foundations. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara has completely lost the plot. She has turned out to be most unpopular Chief Minister in Jaipur ever. In Madhya Pradesh, anti-incumbency against Chauhan is rampant, as it is in Chhattisgarh. In Jharkhand, it is neck-and-neck. In the far north, Delhi will be watched with bated breath; Punjab is already in the Congress bag; Uttarakhand will be keenly contested, as will be HP. In the latter, the assembly elections will be an interesting pointer in 2019. Bhupinder Hooda seems to be bouncing back as Khattar’s sun sinks. J&K is so disillusioned with the PDP-BJP alliance that Farooq/Omar and Rahul have before them a golden opportunity to avenge the bizarre outcome of the last assembly election.
Thus does Rahul need to get the arithmetic right. The chemistry will follow.
The chemistry will follow when the (maha)gathbandhan, having been established, works out a common minimum/maximum programme while issuing their own separate manifestos, as in 2004. Rahul’s chief business would be to see that the Congress manifesto emerges from a painstaking process of wide-ranging country-wide consultation with opinion-makers of varied hues to enable the Congress to focus and highlight issues of general and specific concern, so as to so shift the national narrative as to project a party and a platform that is seen as thoroughly conversant with the concerns of the electorate at large and does not wind up just answering jibe for jibe.
The Rahul-led Congress will have to be perceived as distinct but constructive. The chemistry that wins people’s minds and hearts will then start working in the same direction as the arithmetic, each symbiotically reinforcing the other.
That is how the last Congress President did it in 2004. That is the way forward for the new Congress president. He seems determined to negotiate that path whatever the challenges. This column wishes him luck. This column’s trolls, of course, don’t!