Cover Story

The Great Indian Rope Trick

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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As the Opposition looks to replicate past triumphs, history will likely repeat, but not the way it expects

Over the past few years, Prashant Kishor has earned a reputation for being synonymous with elections in India. He had worked silently with the winning side in the 2014 General Election that brought Narendra Modi to power in the most resounding Lok Sabha triumph since Rajiv Gandhi’s in 1984. As an election strategist four-and-half years ago, the Bihar-born bespectacled Kishor operated largely behind the scenes for the BJP,

clad in jeans and a T-shirt, but by the time he was working with JD(U)’s Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the fiercely contested Assembly polls of that state in 2015, he had become a much photographed, quoted and feted figure, attired in a kurta and out to humble the mighty BJP on behalf of a grand alliance of the JD(U), RJD and Congress. He was with the victors again. Armed with that notch-up, he projected himself as the man who could revive Congress fortunes in the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017. But this, as it turned out, proved to be a shot too far.

To be fair, setbacks or gains, Kishor still seems to be India’s foremost electoral bellwether. Ahead of next year’s General Election, after having tried his luck elsewhere following a short-lived falling out with Nitish Kumar, he is now back in Patna, offering to place the 67-year-old politician and socialist veteran—whose loyalties have shifted to the BJP—on the winning side again.

The behaviour of politicians once election season sets in is always an indication of how the battlefield is shaping up. Right now, BJP dominance has sent opposition parties scurrying to join forces and cleave apart BJP allies that have been overshadowed. Recently, senior JD(U) leader Pawan Varma, who is known to enjoy ties with politicians across parties, requested Nitish Kumar to meet a few representatives of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) while their leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was holding a sit-in at the Lieutenant Governor’s office with a few cabinet colleagues. The Bihar Chief Minister, who usually likes to maintain friendly relations with rivals, turned down the idea, denying AAP a photo-op. He is said to have expressed his displeasure to Varma about what he considered a preposterous proposition.

Posturing is a boom business right now—or just enough of it to signal political flexibility. Hence the efforts to reconnect with old friends, mend strained relations and even share a dais with ideological opponents and political foes. Incidentally, it was not part of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s plan to drop in at Kejriwal’s home along with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, their Andhra Pradesh counterpart N Chandrababu Naidu and the recently sworn-in Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) to express solidarity with AAP leaders (while the Delhi Chief Minister was on protest). At the oath-taking ceremony of Kumaraswamy, who became a Congress ally after having fought the party during the Karnataka campaign, Vijayan had refused to even exchange pleasantries with Banerjee, whom his party accuses of the persecution of its cadres in West Bengal. It is a different matter that the CPM chief Sitaram Yechury and she were spotted in conversation during that event in Bengaluru. This time around though, Vijayan, who was in Delhi for official work, also showed up with the other three chief ministers at a joint press conference to complain of federalism being at threat (as they alleged). This, Kerala’s Chief Minister did on the urging of his party’s central leadership, not on his own volition, though Kejriwal has paid Vijayan visits in the past.

All this underlines the shifts in disposition of various leaders as elections loom. Even the hardiest of politicians don’t seem to be exceptions, with several reaching out to one another. Among other curiosities of the times, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao even runs ads on his government’s achievements in regional languages other than Telugu (such as Malayalam) in what is seen as a measure to project himself as a contender for national power, should the chance arise, post-polls. Efforts to grab an opportunity thrown up by the fragmented result that some leaders expect in 2019 include a quest to take control of the political narrative on social media. Consider the tweet by Congress President Rahul Gandhi after his visit to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to meet the kin of former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. Gandhi said he was a sepoy of the Congress party who respects leaders like Vajpayee while, as he alleged, top BJP politicians have lost respect for their own gurus. This set off an online flurry of responses.

Amid such remarks and counter-remarks, some leaders appear to be doing all they can to politicise every possible issue. Many members of the opposition, especially the Congress, seem to believe that upping the ante against the ruling BJP-led coalition on every front will yield gains for their combined forces at the hustings. Congress insiders that Open spoke to say that the party expects this ‘conscription’ of support against the BJP to grant it both intellectual and popular strength.

Congress hopes of a revival, courtesy the support of anti-right parties and interest groups and inspired by Mrs Gandhi’s comeback of the 60s, merely make for idle chatter

One Congressman compares the current situation to the phase after a round of elections in 1967 when the country voted out the Congress for the first time in several states and weakened its power at the Centre. Indira Gandhi survived those testing times thanks to the backing of various political outfits and well-wishers that included intellectuals and academics who helped her fight off her troubles within the Congress and without. Assisted by the likes of her trusted aide PN Haksar, a career bureaucrat, and leftists such as Mohan Kumaramangalam, Mrs Gandhi set the stage for her domination of Indian politics. The rest, as they say, was history. She went on to become one of the most powerful prime ministers of India.

Such hopes of a Congress revival—of history repeating itself— from the fringes of Indian politics, courtesy the support of anti-Right parties and interest groups, happen to make for heady cocktail circuit chatter. Back in the 60s, the intelligentsia and commentariat did stand by Mrs Gandhi as she stared down challenges to her leadership from the Syndicate, mostly the party’s old guard led by Morarji Desai, K Kamaraj and others. And she did emerge out of the shadow of her father Jawaharlal Nehru to force the opposition into submission.

Will history repeat itself? Let’s compare the past with the present. The year 1967 marked a watershed in Indian electoral history. In the first polls held after the 1964 death of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, the Congress was voted out of power in nine states; at the Centre, it had to contend with a stronger opposition as its tally of Lok Sabha seats fell drastically. Within months of the General Election held in February that year, Charan Singh, a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh who had begun to question Nehru as early as the Nagpur Congress conclave of 1959, left the Grand Old Party of India to become the first non-Congress Chief Minister of UP in a major blow to the leadership of Mrs Gandhi. Of the 520 seats in the Lok Sabha then, the Congress had won 78 and polled close to 4 per cent votes lower than it had in the previous election of 1962. Of Delhi’s seven Parliamentary seats, the Congress won only one, while the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) won six, raising its tally to 35, its highest ever. The Swatantra Party won 44 seats, DMK 25, Samyukta Socialist Party 23, the Praja Socialist Party and CPI 23 each, and the CPM 19.

Within the next two years, as a leadership tussle heightened in the Congress with Mrs Gandhi on one side and the party’s former grandees on the others, her faction was reduced to a minority. It was at this point that many well-known intellectuals of the time stepped in to salvage her government and political career. A section of communists and opinion leaders came to her rescue, helping her firm up her position as a leader to reckon with. She had some advantages: though Jayaprakash Narayan would later spearhead a ‘total revolution’ against her rule, culminating in her imposing the Emergency in 1975 until 1977, her most formidable opponent Ram Manohar Lohia died in 1967. The churn during this period exposed significant fractures within the Congress for the first time, weakening the electoral prowess of a party that had been shaped into a cohesive nationalist force by Mahatma Gandhi himself. But Mrs Gandhi found succour in liberal intellectuals who helped stave off the threats within. It helped that leaders of the pro-Soviet communist group, CPI, such as SA Dange and others, came up with a ‘unite and struggle’ policy—which in their parlance meant electoral support for the national bourgeoisie represented by the Congress while also fighting its ‘anti-people’ policies. Mrs Gandhi played ball by nationalising Indian banks in 1969 on the pretext that thousands of depositors had lost their money in the collapse of private banks, and then proceeded to run a plethora of poverty eradication programmes to go with catchy slogans such as ‘Garibi Hatao’.

Once Congress split in 1969, Mrs Gandhi was introduced to the idea of an alignment with the Left by Haksar on the promise of a mutually beneficial deal. In exchange for political power, she had only to cede authority over academia and cultural institutions to the Left, a move that would impress the Soviet Union, India’s key defence ally during the Cold War era. She could also re-orient the Congress organisational apparatus in a way that suited her—by replacing regional satraps with less popular but malleable leaders. The age of powerful state-level Congress leaders of the stature of Purushottam Das Tandon and Kamaraj were soon over, consolidating the power of the Nehru-Gandhi family over the party. The formation of a breakaway group by Nijalingappa, Desai, CB Gupta and others in a tie-up with socialists and the BJS would return to haunt Mrs Gandhi later, but without quite upsetting her political career. The most significant consequences of nipping regional heavyweights and concentrating power in the party high command, though, would surface only long after Mrs Gandhi was gone.

In her heyday at the helm of India, Indira Gandhi had a quid pro quo arrangement with the Soviet Union, which had gained the influence it sought in South Asia after the 1971 creation of Bangladesh, a crowning moment for Mrs Gandhi who was looked up to by millions for her nerves of steel at the time. But her decision to go with the Left—even globally—would result in an alliance of Congress breakaway groups and the Right that would temporarily unsettle her towards the end of the 1970s. BJS leader Nanaji Deshmukh is a name worth recalling among the masterminds of such a grouping, especially for its long-term impact on Indian politics. But the price for her strong-willed yet myopic measures would be paid later by her successors in the Congress.

The BJP is also busy courting potential new allies and pacifying old ones. Amit Shah’s efforts to reach out to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra are an example of that

Ironically, Mrs Gandhi’s ideological alignment with the Left was always suspect: as historians note, she was among those who worked behind the scenes to have the Communist government of Kerala dismissed within two years of its coming to power in 1957.

The Congress continued to face electoral routs, particularly so after the late 80s when the demands of coalition politics meant it had to support other parties to retain power (and not the other way round, as had been the case two decades earlier). The period from 2004 to 2014 saw the Congress in power at the Centre for two consecutive terms, first with the help of Communists and others, and then thanks to a lack of consolidation among parties opposed to it. Leftists claim that it was the welfare agenda of the coalition it led that helped the Congress get a second term after the General Election of 2009.

ROM 2014 ONWARDS, the year it lost power, the Congress in alliance with others has been trying to mobilise sundry intellectuals and cultural leaders to ensure a replay of 1969. What might have prompted some of these individuals to throw their weight behind the anti-BJP camp was the fear of a shift away from the status quo they are accustomed to. Periodic opposition to the Modi Government has been a result of this, with many levelling charges of heavy-handed intervention in arts and culture. In the past four years, the Government has incurred the anger of several writers, movie directors, artists and others, some of whom returned their official awards in protest against what they argued was a threat to the ‘secular fabric of India’. Though the available data on violence against minorities, Dalits and activist- rationalists showed no marked rise after Modi assumed charge, at least 40 awards were returned in 2015 by luminaries in various fields. When this phenomenon of ‘award wapsi’ was being debated, one of the contentions put forth was that dissenters had been silenced even under Congress-led UPA rule, a period that didn’t see anyone attributing these developments to a failure of Central governance. Some of the artists themselves said that singling out the BJP for the actions of self-appointed custodians of the Hindu faith was unfair.

A groundswell of support across the country in favour of Hindu nationalism was perhaps underestimated by rival politicians, although the 2014 General Election was indication enough of such a trend. This meant that protests against the Government—which included allegations that crimes against Dalits had risen under Modi— would fizzle out even as the BJP fared spectacularly well in election after election held since then, with the exception of the last round of state polls in Bihar and Delhi.

Though the current dispensation is no darling of the media or intelligentsia, it has carved out for itself a constituency through effective implementation of various flagship schemes. Over the past four years, Modi has helped the party co-opt new vote banks through either electoral alliances or schemes aimed at the upliftment of women, the poor and other groups. The role of schemes such as Mudra, Ujjwala and others in helping the BJP pull in votes has been notable, bureaucrats tell Open. “Which is why negative campaigns over demonetisation and its supposed impact on the informal sector have failed to produce the desired results for the Opposition,” says a Delhi-based senior official who has closely studied the impact of government schemes on voting patterns.

The Congress and other parties, including the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party—one-time foes that entered into an alliance with the local Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) for the recent Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll to defeat the BJP—expect to forge a grand alliance for 2019 to take on the BJP, which, on its own, has an unassailable lead over others as a single party. This was evident even in the recent Karnataka Assembly polls, where the BJP emerged as the single largest party.

What do such realignments mean for the country’s two main contenders for power?

The BJP is also busy courting potential new allies and pacifying old ones. Party President Amit Shah’s efforts to reach out to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra are an example of that.

For the Congress, which for decades has been playing second fiddle to regional allies in key states—a phenomenon most obvious in Tamil Nadu—the current trend is not heartening. Its President Rahul Gandhi often rolls up his sleeves as a mark of his confidence in uniting various forces to defeat the BJP. But there are indications that the party’s bargaining chips are slipping in value, with regional powers pitching themselves as national-level players. With the BJP in power in 20 of the country’s 31 states—in mid- 2014, it was running governments only in seven—and the Congress at its lowest tally of seats ever both in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, the difference between the two is sharp and the going will not get any easier for the older one even if a wide array of opposition parties come to its aid. In all likelihood, a patchwork of regional tie-ups will result in the Congress contesting its lowest number of Lok Sabha seats ever.

The odds are that 1969 will repeat itself, but—to paraphrase Marx—more as a tragedy, if not a farce.