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Congress' electoral "success": BJP is hardly expected to be sitting on its haunches

By Anand K Sahay*
Suddenly, the expectation has been given birth in the minds of the people -- not just the political class -- that a credible challenge to the Modi-Shah BJP has sprouted. There is a sense of loosening up in the country, a feeling of normal breathing, a dispelling of the suffocation produced by overt and persistent majoritarian actions of Sangh parivar elements generated through their foul and violent methods which appeared to enjoy the indulgence of those who matter.
Indeed, when the BJP was expecting to steamroll the Congress, it went for a six over mid-wicket. This altered not just the political lie of the land but national political dynamics as well as we approach the Lok Sabha election.
What form the riposte of the opposition parties will assume in different states is all the lively speculation now. The conceptual confusions that attended the very mention of the prospect of multiple parties combining to challenge the supposed masters of the game have dissolved.
The ‘hesitations of history’ imposed on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi by the circumstances of his birth and by Narendra Modi’s unremitting demonising of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira and Rajiv Gandhi -- magnified by leading media sections that praised even questionable moves of those in power -- appear to have melted away.
The current Congress leader has demonstrably shaken off his fetters. Observers now note Rahul Gandhi’s maturity, his gentleness (which stands out in such sharp contrast with the boorishness of many of his Sangh parivar opponents), and his soft humour. These set him apart from his adversaries who had made the spewing of venom against political opponents routine.
Gandhi has now even demonstrated that he is Prime Minister Modi’s equal in terms of what psephologists call “strike rate”. If the BJP won 55 seats where Modi campaigned in the recent elections, Gandhi’s tally was 50 -- not much to choose there. This hardly used to be the case earlier.
After providing evidence of grit on the campaign trail and political savvy in managing edgy Congress factions, the bane of the party especially at election time, the Congress president should forgo the appellation “chor” or thief when speaking of the self-appointed “chowkidar” -- the guard of the premises -- of the nation. More restrained language will do our democracy a world of good.
Stooping low to emulate the leading lights of the BJP was never recommended. After the Congress’s major wins in a head-to-head contest with the BJP, this is now not even necessary in order to impress the “shirtless”, who may incline to rough speech to show machismo- the path favoured by the Hindu nationalists in recent times as they worked to mobilise the “downstairs” of society.
While it is true that those in power today (and some others) had reviled Gandhi’s father in the same language, paying back in kind in such matters is not the civilised way, even if men like Donald Trump (and others) do this all the time. False delineations of words and actions of political opponents, a stock-in- trade of important ruling party politicians, is also a temptation best avoided.
It has become evident that the ruling party’s defeat in the recent state polls in three Hindi heartland states, which had played a vital part in the BJP’s famous win in the Parliament election of 2014, is attributable not so much to the functioning of the ruling party as to its leading demagogue and ideologue of the past five years, Prime Minister Modi.
More than the PM’s style of campaigning (galling though his reference to Sonia Gandhi as the “vidhwa” or the widow was), analysts of different shades are united in the view that rural distress was at the core of voter disenchantment. Allied to this crucial cause was the faltering unemployment data for a nearly five-year period, which was seen as Modi reneging on a key promise.
The crisis in agriculture and the dropping unemployment were both fed by the demonetisation of 2016, a policy that Modi had personally driven with single-minded devotion, cutting out all others in the political executive, and key advisors.
Thus, barring the gainfully employed sections that form the backbone of the urban middle class, practically all sections of society had begun to nurse a grievance against the economic policies of the Modi regime. This is a picture that was on view across Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan.
Madhya Pradesh under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s leadership appeared to resist the trend, but the psychological disequilibrium triggered in the lives of ordinary people by the policies of the Centre defined for Indians in a basic way the main motif of the recent Assembly elections.
Will the graph of the state elections be valid for the Lok Sabha poll? Aren’t issues debated at the Assembly level different from those raised in Lok Sabha elections? Analysis of polling data over time suggests that, generally, if the national election is held within about six months of Assembly polls, then the trend seen at the state level only intensifies in the Lok Sabha elections. And we saw in the recent elections that the key deciding factors were the Centre’s harmful policies, rather than those of the three state governments. Logically, this should continue to be valid in the Parliament election early next year.
Until recently, the RSS-BJP were seen as running the most fearsome election fighting machine in the world, which was at it round the clock, even when there were no elections. The polls in the Hindi-speaking states, which were the RSS-BJP’s special area of influence, have shown this to be a myth. The propaganda of invincibility was circulated by the RSS itself with the help of friendly sections of the media, some of whom even expanded this pedestrian hypothesis into a shaky theory in quickie books.
It was noteworthy in the Madhya Pradesh election that the BJP was bested by the Congress even in the state’s Malwa belt, where deep RSS influence has carried from even before independence. For the main opposition party, this reveals a favourable juncture. But there is nothing automatic in life or politics. 
Rahul Gandhi and his party have laid the groundwork. They need to show the skill and the wisdom to take forward the momentum. The BJP, the party in power, is hardly expected to be sitting on its haunches.
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*Senior Delhi-based journalist and columnist. A version of this article first appeared in The Asian Age

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