Verdict 2016

Congress: The Dead Old Party of India

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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A verdict that magnifies the irrelevance of the Congress and strengthens the modernisation agenda of the Prime Minister

A POLITICAL QUAKE HAS hit the Congress, burying under its rubble two crucial governments of the party in Assam and Kerala. It was felt in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, too, where the party’s revival plans remained good only on paper. This is the worst news for Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who has long been projected by his party as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level. With the Congress now running governments in states that together have less than 10 per cent of the nation’s population, doubts will multiply over the ability of the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s ability to fashion a credible message that connects with a changed and changing electorate.

With hubris and defiance as the trademarks of the Congress leadership, there are fears within the party that voter habits, emotions and beliefs will move further away from it. The meltdown in states where it once had considerable presence will complicate its efforts to portray itself as the natural leader of an anti-Narendra Modi front. The success of regional leaders will crowd out the Congress’ claim to occupy centre stage as the BJP’s primary opposition.

The verdict is certain to raise the political heft of the BJP and the regime led by it at the Centre. While Assam has opened a gateway for the party to the Northeast, so far alien to it, its remarkable debut in Kerala—despite the strength of two bigger alliances, not to mention the numerically preponderant minority communities— could attract smaller players for future allies. The lotus is at home in the new ecosystem of Kerala.

In Parliament, too, the Congress may not be able to persist with its obstructionism, as the party’s anger against the Modi Government may not find favour with regional parties. The chief Congress conceit of being a pan-Indian party is now under attack, and the new grandees from the provinces cannot be expected to fall in line with it in Parliament.

Expectedly, sycophants have mounted an effort to shield Rahul Gandhi from sniper fire over the debacle. But the erosion of the 45-year-old’s political capital was evident when Mamata Banerjee bluntly told reporters that she did not consider him a serious player. “He is Mr Narendra Modi’s biggest USP,” she told reporters in Kolkata.

HIMANTA BISWA SARMA is a household name in Assam. He once told a news channel the story of his interaction with “God”, the vice-president of the party to which he then belonged. “I just couldn’t reconcile myself to Rahul Gandhi’s policies,” he said, “So I quit and joined the BJP. I don’t call myself a defector.” The Congress leader, Sarma added, “acts as if he’s God and doesn’t know how to resolve critical issues concerning the state leadership… He treats new entrants to the party with immense suspicion. Anyone who supports him is bound to be disillusioned.” Voters were listening.

The meeting Sarma was referring to was also attended by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and the party general secretary in charge of Assam, CP Joshi. According to Sarma, Rahul Gandhi showed a distinct lack of interest in the discussion within just two minutes of his interaction with the octogenarian Gogoi (Narendra Modi had addressed him sarcastically as ‘Dada’, which means ‘elder brother’ in Assamese but also ‘grandpa’ in Hindi, at a poll rally in the state) and began fiddling with his mobile phone. Seconds later, even as it became clear that the Congress was going to face an uphill task in retaining the state, he began patting his pet canine. About five minutes later, even as the state leaders present were warming up for talks, he wound up the meeting with an imperious “That’s enough. I make chief ministers.” Sarma later said that it was this feudal attitude of Rahul at that meeting called to discuss poll strategy that led him to leave the Congress for the BJP.

Sarma’s departure was an augury that the Congress High Command failed to take note of. As it turns out, it was a death knell for the party in the state. The verdict has rung in the BJP’s first government in the region. After a reign of 15 years, the Gogoi government has been turfed out by the electorate, proving the failure of his subnational poll pitch that tried to sell a unified Assamese identity, a campaign that even used the JNU student icon Kanhaiya Kumar on posters in a bid to retain power. Voters have shown a preference for performance over rhetoric, as they did in the other states that went to the polls.

The BJP juggernaut also dashed Badruddin Ajmal’s hopes of playing kingmaker in Assam’s 126-member Assembly. His party, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), had 18 seats earlier and hoped to win around 35 seats this time round. But the minority vote was split between his party and the Congress, putting an end to the notion of a ‘Muslim veto’. Ajmal himself lost from Salmara South, to Congress’ Wazed Ali Choudhury.

The Prime Minister may have said that he would usher in a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’, but it seems the party is ready to achieve this on its own with no help from him

In retrospect, the exit poll results were only teasers that led a trail of doom for the Congress. With the votes counted, the numbers were even more dramatically against the party than were forecast. Apart from the switch of its long-time stronghold of Assam to the BJP, Mamata Banerjee has not only extended her reign in Kolkata for another five years, her Trinamool Party has soundly thrashed the ideologically untenable alliance of the Left and the Congress, even as the LDF in Kerala has handed a sweeping defeat to the uninspiring UDF regime led by Oommen Chandy of the Congress. The dismal state of the Congress was even more apparent in Kerala, where voters flatly refused to hand power in Thiruvananthapuram back to a party led by a man who Sarma described as harbouring delusions of divinity.

In West Bengal, Didi had literally put her money where her mouth was and snatched a clear majority from the jaws of scepticism, disbelief and political intrigue. The Left Front, raring to wrench back power and retake Writers’ Building, was pleased to join hands with the Congress, while the latter went to the extent of dumping its long time anti-Left rhetoric overnight mainly to make a mark again in the state. It was a total disaster for both.

IN TAMIL NADU, where the Congress had to hang on to the coat-tails of the 2G-scam tainted DMK and its nonagenarian patriarch M Karunanidhi, once an ally who was dumped in a desperate and doomed bid to retain power at the Centre, the party’s efforts just did not succeed. The do-or-die strategy that Congress leaders in Chennai had boasted of has amounted to nothing, and Jayalalithaa has broken the state’s anti-incumbency jinx to achieve a second successive victory (for which a division of anti- AIADMK votes came in handy).

While these Assembly elections may have been crucial for the Modi-led BJP, which badly needed an emphatic verdict in its favour in order to reinforce the image and authority of the Government at the Centre, it was the Congress, battling to retain its image as the BJP’s main opposition and still dogged by scams of governments past, that stood to lose the most. The Prime Minister may have vowed many a time that he would usher in a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ (Congress-less India), but it seems the old dynastic party is ready to achieve this on its own with no help from him.

With the latest losses, the Congress is set to look even more anaemic than it ever did. Overshadowed by scams such as the latest one involving AgustaWestland helicopters, the party may find it exceedingly difficult in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election to convince voters that it is a natural party of governance that could be a viable alternative to the Modi government. The current resistance that Congress is posing in the Rajya Sabha to Modi’s economic reforms agenda draws on the strength of its past popularity, but as more and more states slip out of its grasp, new members will come to occupy the Upper House.

It isn’t Rahul Gandhi’s reputation alone that has been bruised by the verdict. Despite an impressive win for the CPM-led LDF in Kerala, party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s electoral strategy and political sagacity to beef up CPM is likely to come under question from within. Yechury has been closer to the Congress leadership than his predecessor Prakash Karat was, and even though the CPM decision to align with the Congress in West Bengal was resisted by many Politburo members—for being a brazen violation of the political line adopted by its Visakhapatnam Congress— the party chief went ahead with it. Karat pointedly avoided campaigning in the state.

The big winner of the day is the master strategist, BJP President Amit Shah. The Assam victory goes some way in redeeming Shah from the setback in Bihar some months ago, where the BJP lost to a combine of the JD-U and RJD, and in Delhi, where the BJP was trounced by Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP. In the latest Assembly polls, Shah had led from the front, micro-managing electoral manoeuvres in various parts and taking complete ownership of the process. The Modi-Shah duopoly is expected to loom larger than ever within the BJP, where the cabal of older leaders in charge of its so-called Ethics panel had at times created news ripples by questioning some of the moves made by Shah and his acolytes.

Despite the odds, in March the Modi Government pushed through a three-year-old Bill to create a real estate regulator, redrafted India’s double tax avoidance treaty with Mauritius to close an avenue by which taxes were being ducked, and reformed the country’s complicated insolvency rules that prolonged the time taken to wind up bankrupt companies and recover dues from them. Verdict 2016 gives Modi extra space to push measures of reforming the economy more aggressively. The shot in the arm that Amit Shah has given him this summer could act as a force multiplier for the Prime Minister’s modernisation agenda.