Politicians, like cricketers, have a habit of making instant fools of commentators. The moment a prediction is made, they pull off what is exactly the opposite, often spectacularly. Yet, the obvious can no longer be camouflaged – irrespective of the result, the kind of campaign it ran in the showpiece Gujarat elections, shows the Congress party is on its last legs and the season of hope, embellished with the audacity of its spin doctors, has effectively ended. The denouement of India’s oldest and most storied political party, that had begun in the mid-Eighties with the Bofors scandal and subsequently with the start of the coalition era in 1989 when it was reduced to being a backroom and sometimes backstabbing player, is now complete. The Bharatiya Janata Party would not be wide of the mark to liken this to its version of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.
Gujarat had been the big test for the party. Unlike in other states, Gujarat still subscribes to bipolar politics. The beneficiary of anti-incumbency or anything going against the BJP is expected to accrue to the Congress party. This is a state that has long been considered a laboratory for Sangh Parivar-style politics. There is no denying that after 22 years in power, there was anti-incumbency by truckloads against the BJP. But, the straight fight between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his identification with Gujarati ‘asmita’ – Gujarati pride – and Rahul Gandhi has, going by exit polls of the Gujarat assembly election, turned out to be a mismatch.
This is a manifestation of the symptom, of what has been a systematic, almost willful fall. The decay had been visible even when the UPA was in power at the centre, but the party had been stubbornly clutching at straws, charging at windmills and celebrating victories where there had been none. That was because it had cut off its own legs to set it sights low, its hopes fuelled by a comical attachment to the need for glory.
One instance will make this clear. In 2009, when the UPA returned to power and the Congress party won 206 seats on its own, the results in Uttar Pradesh were considered the highlight of the elections. Yet, all the party had won were 21 Lok Sabha seats out of 80 in the state. Typically, that so-called success had many fathers. The performance of the central government was one. But it was also hailed as the coming of age of Rahul Gandhi, the man who delivered Uttar Pradesh to the party. The talk of a change in party leadership was broached around then. Nothing happened, as the party trundled on, burdened by its own weight.
This inability to think on its feet has been a failing with the Congress – as contrasted by the nimble-footed 24x7 politics of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Rahul Gandhi did pick up the right signal, and understood that the discourse in the country had changed towards nationalism, hindutva and hindu majoritarianism and it was because of the presence of India’s most popular mass leader at the helm. The reference is to his highly-publicised temple visits in the course of the election campaign in Gujarat. But, he had come too late in the game, and the efforts to repeat the soft-Hindutva of old-style Congress politics in Gujarat was seen as being forced by the BJP. In short, instead of forcing a change in public discourse, it had joined in the existing discourse. Typical politicians, it would be naïve to imagine that while moving in for the kill in the crucial election, Modi and Shah would not make a public issue of Congress leaders meeting with Pakistanis at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house. As Arthur Koestler said in ‘Darkness at Noon’, “The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics; anything else is just a vague chatter and melts away between one’s fingers.”
The choice in that is between a Gandhian interpretation that puts the focus on the means and the current discourse that is brazen and unapologetic about how the ends are achieved. Meanwhile, the Congress party, for all its political heft and experience, is unable to deal with the narrative of being dynastic, pro-minority and decaying. On the ground, it is playing a different game, not the one that people want to see. The rise of aggressive nationalism and overt Hindu majoritarianism has made it worse.
For a year-and-a-half, as elections came and went, it was happy with gloating over the victory of the now-dead mahagathbandhan in Bihar, till the victory in Punjab happened earlier this year – enough to keep the party’s spin doctors in employment. The Congress party will not go away suddenly. It is too big and its interests too deeply entrenched for this to happen. Rahul Gandhi has indicated that he wants to change things. In Gujarat, he indicated that he is willing to practise the 24x7 politics of Modi and Shah. But, right now his party is staring at a barren political landscape – more stark than in 1977 when, post emergency, it got the support of two important southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and won 153 Lok Sabha seats which provided the springboard for its return in 1980.