Loyalists like Mani Shankar Aiyar argue that the Gandhi family is the adhesive force that keeps the party together. (Image: Reuters)
The 2014 general elections saw the Congress party reduced to its worst ever tally of seats in the Lok Sabha (‘Is there any hope for Congress in India?,’ Gulf News, November 12). Thereafter, the Congress continued to fair poorly and was voted out of power in the assembly elections held in Maharashtra and Haryana. The electoral debacles haven’t managed to dampen the enthusiasm of Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar.
He said: “In 1999, we were in power in only five states. Today, we have eight states. This shows that there is enough scope for the Congress to bounce back.” He cites the example of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise in national polity from a meagre count of two seats to suggest that the highs and lows are a part of politics.
But, another worrying factor for the Congress is the rapid manner in which it has lost the Muslim vote. The assembly elections in Maharashtra saw Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (MIM) win two seats and emerge as a challenger for the Muslim vote for the Congress. Rejecting Congress’s politics of minority appeasement, Rasheed Kidwai simultaneously labels MIM’s debut in Maharashtra as a “failure of Nehruvian ideas of secularism”. But Aiyar stresses that there is electoral space for parties like MIM.
Though these demands only reflect the dynastic nature of the party and the inability of the Congress to look for a leader beyond the Gandhis, loyalists like Aiyar argue that the Gandhi family is the adhesive force, keeping the party together and that they are the biggest crowd puller.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been acknowledged as India’s newest rock star by Forbes Magazine, the Congress party is facing its toughest challenge since independence. What remains to be seen is whether the Congress manages to put its own house in order and challenge the overwhelmingly right wing atmosphere in the country, which has led to recurrent sectarian skirmishes ever since the new government took charge.
(This article was originally published in Gulf News.)
As far as political significance is concerned, Uttar Pradesh tops the charts. The most populous state of India has the capacity as well as the ability to make or break the political fortunes of political outfits in India. History bears testimony to the fact that Uttar Pradesh has many a times single-handedly decided the fate of the Union Parliament of India. The State of UP sends as many as 80 members to the Lok Sabha and so the political leaders cannot afford to take UP lightly. The Assembly Elections in India are on and Uttar Pradesh along with four other states has gone to polls. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly has as many as 403 seats and the magic figure is 202+. Many analysts have labeled the 2012 Assembly Elections in UP as a sort of dress rehearsal for the 2014 General Elections. Such is the influence of this ‘mini-general election’ that each and every party has instructed its stalwarts to campaign endlessly to ensure its triumph in the state.
I see the 2012 UP Assembly Elections as a battle between the Congress’s Comprehensive Social Engineering, BSP’s Collective Caste Calculus, SP’s Socialistic Renaissance Avtar and the BJP’s Exclusive Developmental Politics. The Congress Party has been out of power in UP since 22 years. Congress party’s scion Rahul Gandhi has been working overtime in the region to orchestrate his party’s resurgence. Ever since Rahul has stepped into politics, he has concentrated on rebuilding the party’s strength in the crucial state of UP. Rahul has taken a big gamble by spearheading the Congress’s campaign in UP and if its fortunes remain the same, the prince is bound to face brickbats. The Congress’s campaign in UP has been based on what I call, ‘Comprehensive Social Engineering’. All these years Rahul has been consistently visiting Dalit homes and staying overnight with them just for the sake of luring the voters of that community. Rahul’s theatrics will surely help the Congress in tapping a significant portion of the Dalit votes. Rahul hasn’t confined himself to one community. He has been found fighting for the farmers in Bhatta Parsaul who alleged that their land was forcefully acquired by the State Government of BSP. The farmers allege that when they fought back, the State police lathi-charged them and even went on to victimize certain families by murdering men and raping women. Rahul scored a political masterstroke when he took up the issue of these farmers and brought it to the centre stage of Indian politics. Rahul toiled hard and eventually convinced the Union Cabinet to instruct the Union Poverty Alleviation Minister to draft a New Land Acquisition Bill which would provide the farmers with better and more reasonable acquisition rates for their land. This populist legislation is yet to be brought in front of the Union Parliament but it has surely won Rahul many admirers among the community of farmers. This initiative of Rahul will benefit the Congress Party electorally in UP and will consolidate the votes of farmers in their favour. The Central Government headed by the Congress has been undertaking quite a few populist measures. Sonia Gandhi led NAC’s pet Food Security Bill is one such example. The bill seeks to provide the right to food to all and would help the Congress Party in reaching out to the impoverished people and will help in winning the votes of people belonging to the lowest strata of the society which includes SC’s/ST’s. The Centre even sanctioned multi-crore packages for weavers and backward regions like Bundelkhand to woo different communities. The Congress didn’t restrict itself to the lower castes. FDI in Retail which unfortunately got stalled by the Opposition, aimed to eye the middle and the upper middle class educated people. The party strongly argued that the entry of foreign firms will not only provide the youth with job opportunities but will also ensure better rates for farmers who are bound to benefit because of organized retail. The two-faced argument was indicative of the fact that the Congress was trying to weave in the support of the rich as well as the poor. The Congress Party had promised minority quota to the minorities in its manifesto during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls but purposely enacted it prior to the UP elections with the intention of using it as an electoral tool to drum up political support among the minorities. But the Congress Party does face many apprehensions. It’s heading an unstable coalition at the Centre and scams like the 2G and CWG were huge setbacks for the Congress-led Government. The Anna Hazare Movement and the Lokpal Logjam further deteriorated the image of the Congress Government. Nowadays the UPA Government is being accused of thwarting federalism. The issue took to the top of the podium during the Lokpal Debate in Parliament and also during the recent controversy in connection to the National Counter Terrorism Centre. It’ll very difficult for the Congress to tame all these negative factors and come out with flying colours in UP.
The incumbent government in UP is that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The party headed by Mayawati secured a massive mandate during the last elections and this time around it is fighting to improve its tally further and to storm back to power. BSP has always projected itself as the party of the downtrodden and the socially backward but this time it’s indulging in something which it hasn’t done before. I call that a ‘collective caste calculus’. For the very first time the BSP is projecting itself as a party of the ‘sarva samaj’ and not just the ‘dalit samaj’. It’s undertaking a more encompassing campaign by means of initiatives like ‘Brahmin Jodo Abhiyan’ and is also talking of minority quota. Mayawati’s grip over the administration has been strong and she has been able to restore the rule of law in the land. She has managed to ensure the elimination of many dacoits and has successfully kept many criminals behind bars. Her colossal parks with her giant sized statues along with her mammoth security apparatus (which matches that of the American President) are viewed by many of her supporters as symbols of Dalit pride, a community which was historically discriminated and oppressed but has now finally emerged on the scene courtesy Behenji. Mayawati is an astute political strategist and she outscored other parties when she passed a resolution to divide the state of UP into four parts. Even though the plan didn’t get the green signal from the Home Ministry but still Mayawati managed to invoke among people what analysts call ‘regional loyalty’ and it might provide her with electoral benefits. Mayawati has bigger plans and intends to emerge as the single largest player on the national scene and consolidating further power in UP is the first step towards that. But coming back to power won’t be an easy ride for Mayawati. She has been accused of heading a corrupt cabinet. Her government is accused of many scams, the National Rural Health Mission scam being the biggest. The controversy is shrouded with mystery and has led to a series of murders. Mayawati’s BSP is also accused of misusing central funds for constructing parks and statues instead of utilizing it for developmental purposes. Mayawati has come under heavy criticism from her political compatriots for this but she remains undeterred.
The next contender is Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party. Samajwadi Party has also undertaken a blitzkrieg campaign to woo the electorate. The party’s campaign is being led by Akhilesh Yadav. For the very first time the SP has altered a few of its trademark stances. The party in its manifesto has promised to distribute free laptops and has spoken in favour of promoting English education. The two announcements hold grave significance as SP has been traditionally opposed to Computers and English as they equated them with the evils of Colonialism and Imperialism. This new strategy has made me categorize the SP as a party in its ‘socialistic renaissance avtar’. The SP has even promised free public transport and electricity to the electorate. As far as freebies are concerned, there is no party capable of matching the SP. Apart from this the SP is banking upon the traditional votebank of Yadavs and Muslims. It has called the Congress’s minority quota a false promise and termed it as misleading. The SP has stated that all Muslims are ‘pichdas’ and promised to enact 18% reservation for all Muslims. I see this as a communal move taken with the intention of polarizing the Muslim vote. It’s true that a large number of Muslims are backward and they need educational and job quotas to free themselves from social and economic backwardness but I am unwilling to accept the fact that all Muslims are in need of quotas. This move might just prove counterproductive for the SP. The people of UP haven’t still forgotten the criminal rule under the SP regime and these handicaps will be tough to overcome.
The final serious contender is the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP is relying upon its traditional votebank of Brahmins and it is also trying to tap in the OBC votes this time. The BJP has promised that it will scrap the Congress’s minority quota if voted to power at the Centre and has even said that it will think of increasing the share of OBC quota in UP. It has been projecting itself as the saviour of OBC’s and has left no stone unturned to woo the community. The desperation was on show when the BJP took in tainted BSP discard Kushwaha to please the OBC’s. By invoking the Ram Mandir issue in its manifesto, the BJP has once again successfully marketed itself as the upholder and protector of Hindu prestige and pride. The BJP is even trying to cash in on the Anna Movement and is making use of the anti-corruption mood in the country. The BJP has continuously claimed that it was due to the commendable role played by the BJP as a watchdog in the Union Parliament, that the people of India became acquainted with scams like the 2G and CWG. The BJP is trying its best to make use of the anti-incumbency wave at the Centre. BJP has been ruthless in its criticism of the Congress and has taken the party head-on on the issue of minority reservations. The BJP is quick to point out to the electorate the success of its governments in Bihar (with the JDU) and Gujarat. BJP has all along claimed to practice what it calls ‘exclusive developmental politics’. But the BJP still hasn’t been able to make a substantial impact. It’s been quick to question the minority quota but it’s not questioning its own majoritarianism. Communalism isn’t just about outright minority appeasement, it’s also about propagating absolute majoritarianism. In the state of Goa, a minority bastion, the BJP has fieled more than 20% Christian candidates, in Punjab (another minority stronghold) the BJP has gone for a pact with Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and has fielded quite a few Sikh candidates but in UP, a state of 200 million where there are as many as 4 crore Muslims, ten times the number of Muslims in countries like UAE, the BJP has found only one worthy Muslim candidate in its list of 403 candidates. The BJP’s evident anti-Muslim stand will affect its electoral fortunes and the party’s communal ideology will continue to haunt it in the UP elections.
It’s going to be a tough fight between the Congress, SP and BSP. These three parties will share 350 seats among themselves with each getting a minimum of 100 seats. Any one party out of these could emerge as the single largest party. The BSP will get the votes of the Dalits which will ensure respectable number of seats for it. Its votebank will remain consolidated. The Congress will eat up into the votebank of all parties. It will get a pie of Minority, Brahmin, OBC and Dalit votes but in no condition will the Congress get more than 40% votes of any of these communities. The Congress will be the biggest gainer in these elections. The SP will get a significant share of the votes of Yadav’s and Muslims and they will manage a century of seats for themselves. The BSP will lose over 100 seats and the BJP’s fortunes will also decline. BJP will not get more than 30 seats. Its traditional voters ie the Brahmins will be split between them and the Congress and the OBC’s wont vote for them as they expect. The remaining 20-25 seats will be wrapped by parties like the RLD, Peace Party, JD(U), first timer TMC and other independent candidates. Only the Congress-RLD and the SP will be in a situation to form the Government. No other coalition is possible. BSP might go past SP and Congress in terms of seats but it won’t be able to forge a winning alliance. Even the SP and the Congress can emerge as the single largest party. The numbers separating these three parties would be very less but the verdict from my side is out. The Congress-RLD combine along with the SP is going to form the government. There will be a power sharing deal which would include the SP joining the UPA at the Centre and split-Chief-Ministership in UP where both the Congress and the SP will have a leader of theirs as CM for a fixed period of time.