Regional satraps, many of them pretenders to the Delhi throne, can stand aside and sulk for now. The Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has staged a spectacular comeback, grabbing three geographically contiguous States in the central Hindi belt and sending shivers down the spines of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP.
Dreams turn sour for regional satraps
This is in part an anti-incumbency vote and in part a vote against the complacence of the political and governing establishments of the BJP. In States where strong regional parties fought the polls, as in Mizoram and Telangana, both the Congress and the BJP failed to draw people’s support.
To its credit, however, the BJP can take some comfort in the fact that it was not a total washout for the party in the three States it ruled. Rajasthan has a record of changing parties in government every time an Assembly poll takes place.
It repeated this trend this time too. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP under Shivraj Singh Chouhan ruled the State for a long 13 years, while it remained firmly entrenched in power in Chhattisgarh ever since its formation 15 years ago, under Chief Minister Raman Singh. Overall, the BJP took a major hit in parts of the Hindi belt, what was its political mainstay for long.
What this goes to show is that the upcoming Lok Sabha polls will be an uphill task for the Prime Minister and his party. Strong chances are that the Congress will muster enough support to fight the Prime Minister and the BJP to the finish. Importantly, it will now be Rahul Gandhi who will be in the forefront of this battle, as he has for the first time proven to be a leader with grit and determination – first to take the party out of the woods and then to install governments in three major states alongside Punjab as well.
The party shares power in Karnataka and Puducherry as well. Rahul Gandhi’s intervention post poll helped install a JDU-Congress government in Bengaluru. Notably, the shadow of a ‘tainted’ Sonia Gandhi still haunts Rahul Gandhi. Her advisers during the UPA periods are there behind him now, to which Gandhi added his own young Turks. Together, they pulled out a coup for him and the party.
Overnight, the likes of Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal who considered Rahul Gandhi as her “junior” in politics if only to scheme her way to the PM gaddi in Delhi have shrunk themselves to the level of pigmies. She has just one State with her against Rahul Gandhi’s six.
So, for Nara Chandrababu Naidu, whose aim in Telangana this time was to put his Telugu Desam into power alongside the Congress, so that he could claim the status of a leader with not one, but two States, in his bag.
Naidu was shown his place by the voters in Telangana, giving him no more than a handful of seats. He has got just about three per cent votes polled in Telangana this time against the 15 per cent in the last assembly polls in 2014. His survival in native Andhra Pradesh which he now lords over is in serious doubt.
Another crafty politician Jaganmohan Reddy – no angel - is waiting in the wings to grab his chair at a time when the public mood is turning majorly against the Chief Minister. With what face can Naidu rush to Delhi the next time – which he did this past weekend too - as the architect of the grand alliance against Modi and the BJP for the LS polls 2019? Will Rahul Gandhi anymore give Naidu the same welcome he accorded him in recent weeks by allowing the southern leader in the forefront of the proposed grand alliance build-up?
The Congress has reason to cheer, but it has reason to be wary still. It has been edged out the Northeast as a whole, with long-time Chief Minister with a high reputation Lal Thanhawla bowing of office in Mizoram, making this sensitive and largely laid-out region out of bounds for the Congress at least in the immediate term.
It took a hit in Telangana too, going down in esteem, thanks to the alliance it cobbled with an usurper like Naidu. Yet, the Congress is there in power in the north, the south and the west, not to mention the central region which it annexed now. Clearly, its claim to being the Grand Old Party (GOP) with a nationwide organisational network and people’s support stands reinforced and reasserted.
It’s here to stay, season after season, in the apex or spread over the plateau. It goes to show regional parties have less of space at the Centre, though chances of a coalition government after the 2019 polls remain high. Yet, it would either be the Congress or the BJP that would lead it from the front; not the scheming, unprincipled regional satraps by any chance.
Regional parties cannot be wished away; yet they should not be allowed to go to Delhi and play mayhem like what the NCP of Sharad Pawar did or the DMK of the Karunanidhi clan perpetrated. Modi kept Shiv Sena under control though he kept it with him in power –in Delhi, as also Mumbai. Reason why the tiger never stops roaring.
In the emerging scenario, the fight for the next Lok Sabha hustings would principally be a fight between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. This is a matter of some relief. The scenario till a day ago was different. The grand alliance aimed at deciding on the leader, and by extension the Prime Minister, after the polls – leaving enough scope for regional leaders to run in, fish in troubled waters, and stake claim.
That dream has turned sour now. India can breathe easy. Else, what would one make of a nation led by a disruptor like Banerjee or untrustworthy pretender like Naidu? Or, a footloose Mayawati? By contrast, see the grace with which a Naveen Patnaik minds his business despite his long innings in power in Odisha and having a rightful claim of being among the senior politicians with considerable administrative acumen? Yet, he is not making any claim, and not taking rounds of state capitals to craft a national alliance, and not angling for power in Delhi.
He would not push his own case – unlike the pretenders to the Prime Minister post. Dignity demands as much. Mind your business. Narendra Modi has quietly done a good job, though his flaws are there for all to see. To say that he’s down and out after this round of polls is far from truth. He still has the clout as India’s most popular leader.
But, as he approaches the next polls, what gives the voter the urge to put him back in saddle? Modi treaded a careful course, in keeping with the discipline that he imbibed from his RSS pracharak days. See how he handled matters with Pakistan vis-à-vis LoC and surgical strikes; or with China, a la Doklam. His sense of maturity helped the nation and avoided serious problems.
Frankly, India needs a leader who would confront situations with a stronger sense of grit and will power. Note how long it took for him to see through the GST bill in Parliament, finally turning it into a finance bill to ensure its passage in the face of months of Opposition obstructions? Why gave the Opposition such a long rope? A knockout punch to Pakistan would have been in order after Pathankot and Uri. No serious response went from Delhi other than the surgical strikes of a minor nature.
Manmohan Singh sulked after 26/11. Modi should have proved himself to be different. Or see how Modi and the party gave a long rope to Vasundhara Raje even when she was taking the party’s image downhill in Rajasthan? To say now that she had stonewalled central moves is to demonstrate one’s failure to confront situations.
As the Yeatsian quote goes, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” (The Second Coming).
All this is not to argue Rahul Gandhi, the new knight in shining armour, is a better choice than Modi to lead the nation from the front. Time alone can say this. (The writer is a former editor and a campaigner with India Against Corruption. The views expressed are personal)
By Prem Chandran