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BJP juggernaut has a flat tyre

THE semifinal is over and the result is plain and stark: PM Narendra Modi is no longer the Hindi Hriday Samrat. A 3-0 victory for Rahul Gandhi-led Congress has suddenly left a gaping hole in the BJP’s Hindi heartland map.

BJP juggernaut has a flat tyre

Hands down: The slow but steady Team Congress has closed the gap.

Rajesh Ramachandran

THE semifinal is over and the result is plain and stark: PM Narendra Modi is no longer the Hindi Hriday Samrat. A 3-0 victory for Rahul Gandhi-led Congress has suddenly left a gaping hole in the BJP’s Hindi heartland map. The Madhya Pradesh results have proved that the Congress with its moribund party organisation mothballed for 15 years could effectively take on the BJP governments at the Centre and the state, and also the formidable Sangh Parivar cadre on the ground. The panna-pramukhs and WhatsApp-pramukhs can only go thus far; the voter walks the last mile alone to decide who is a lesser evil.

It is here that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership has breathed life into the Congress. After the temple run in Gujarat and the photo finish at the Assembly polls, the slim 18-seat defeat in the PM’s home state in 2017 proved beyond doubt that the Congress is capable of making the BJP sweat even in its fortress. Tuesday’s poll results are only a logical extension of the Congress’ revival that began in Gujarat. From Bihar in the east to Gujarat in the west, the BJP had swept the polls in 2014 with the cow belt yielding almost 90 per cent seats for the party. Soon after the 2017 Assembly polls, the Modi wave had turned into a saffron tsunami in UP, returning 312 MLAs in a House of 403. That wave has now receded and the polls are being fought on issues of agrarian crises, governance failure, unemployment and myriad local issues.

This turnaround will get translated into an even fight during the next Lok Sabha polls, just four months away. The BJP had won 27 out of 29 seats in MP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan and 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh in 2014. Looking ahead at 2019, all the bipolar states are now up for grabs and suddenly the Congress looks like a viable political option to lead an Opposition alliance. These results effectively have boosted the confidence of Congress partners like the NCP, RJD, DMK, TMC and others to reaffirm their political choice and for Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav to reassess their opportunities. 

As in Punjab, where Rahul Gandhi decided in favour of Capt Amarinder Singh, the choice of veteran Kamal Nath to lead the campaign and fund the polls was the first decisive step that resulted in the tough fight on the ground. Ashok Gehlot as a master strategist is something that Rahul Gandhi had sorely missed earlier. The Gujarat polls filled that vacuum. Whether Gehlot leads the government in Rajasthan or becomes Rahul Gandhi’s political secretary is not the point of debate. More importantly, Rahul has realised the need to have experienced Congressmen from an earlier era to plan, fund and execute campaigns. 

The rout of the BJP in Chhattisgarh, its conclusive defeat in Rajasthan and the nail-biting finish in MP could all be blamed on anti-incumbency. The Congress, too, lost its only government in the Northeast to Mizo National Front in Mizoram. Anti-incumbency is a good enough reason as it ought to be in a democratic process. But Modi as a campaigner all these past four years had a larger-than-life image which was supposed to have overshadowed local issues and Amit Shah’s election machine was supposed to have crunched all meta data to spew winning results in election after election. That juggernaut has come to a screeching halt and that myth of invincibility remains busted.

Modi, for the multitudes, symbolised hope and change after 10 long years of stories of corruption, incompetence, nepotism and dynastic rule. Even demonetisation could only give momentum to the Modi wave in UP during the Assembly polls because the poor voters, always harassed and hustled, felt that here is someone who is trying to catch the corrupt and turn all black money lily white, who is at least trying hard even if he is not fully successful. But now, after four years of Modi rule, these very people of the Hindi heartland seem to have had enough of promises, jumlas, intentions, grandstanding and oratory. They want their lives to get better.

Modi the Chief Minister was always a polarising figure, all through the Gujarat campaigns. But at the national level in 2014, he took pains to make his pitch modern and clean, selling dreams of a nation about to achieve greatness that was denied of it by corrupt politicians disrobing Bharat Mata and siphoning her wealth out to foreign shores. Yet, the first tangible impact of the Modi government was cow lynching, anti-Dalit mob attacks and an attempt to create a new nation without minorities and Dalits. These attacks first crystalised into an anti-incumbency sentiment among the targeted groups, which now has expanded into an anti-BJP surge resulting in the party losing three important states to an absolutely weaker opponent. This could happen only because of the loss of faith in the government’s ability to bring in prosperity.

Ram temple, Ram statue, Hanuman’s caste, Owaisi’s religion and Congress’ widow all put together mean much less than the hope for a better life. In the elusive pursuit of prosperity, the incumbent government has obviously become the bigger evil. Can Modi change this image in the next four months? Four months are a very long time in politics. Many things can change and along with that the perception of non-performance. Also, in the past, Assembly results of 2003 were not repeated in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. There are imponderables galore, nonetheless, 3-0 is too bleak a score to be glossed over.

The last word ought to be about Telangana: will the Congress ever learn not to be cynical? The people of Telangana punished the Congress for its opportunistic alliance with Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP, a party which had bitterly opposed the creation of the state. Now, the so-called grand alliance of Telangana lies in tatters. Something grand ought to have at least an icing of idealism.

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