How to return from the point of no return

Former Bharatiya Janata Party leader K.N. Govindacharya did not have many visitors when he was staying in New Delhi’s elite V.P. House, home and office to many parliamentarians and parties. It was a hot day in May 2004, and by early afternoon TV channels announced that the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance had suffered a shock defeat. After doing the rounds of various party headquarters, I decided to drop by. Though unsavourily eased out of the party a few years earlier, Mr Govindacharya was not jubilant at the party having met its Waterloo. He talked about what happened and why. Eventually, the drift of the conversation shifted to what the verdict meant for the BJP.

“This is the biggest crisis for the party. The period of vanvaas has begun,” he said. To a query if the BJP’s troubles this time were greater than in 1984, when the party won just two Lok Sabha seats, the veteran nodded affirmatively. The party’s days in wilderness didn’t last 14 years but it still required someone to enact the role of modern day — and political — Lord Ram to regain the lost kingdom.

The BJP was not the first party to suffer a humiliating rout while being the incumbent. The Congress had lost thrice — in 1977, 1989 and 1996. Three Janata variants were defeated in 1980, 1991 and 1998, and in the aftermath of the defeat, either the party was a rump or almost one. Of the defeats faced by Congress, the most stunning was Indira Gandhi’s rout in 1977. She had dissolved the fifth Lok Sabha because, in her assessment, she would get re-elected, even after the Emergency. Being an authoritarian leader in search of democratic legitimacy, she ordered polls only to suffer an ignominious defeat even in Rae Bareli, the seat she represented.

Rajiv Gandhi practically lost the elections two years before they were actually called in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi did precious little to stage a comeback and, after his death, his party formed India’s first minority government because he posthumously contributed to its kitty. Seats of the party between 1989 and 1991 went up by barely 20 per cent, hardly the tally that a determined party led by a visionary leader aiming to recover lost territory notches.

The Congress defeat in 1996 didn’t concern P.V. Narasimha Rao because he didn’t look beyond his single-term tenure. Indira Gandhi is the only leader who scripted her political comeback. The task before her was Herculean because there were no benchmarks. There was no history to buttress the belief that a comeback was possible. Yet she went about her task block by block. Splitting her party,

Mrs Gandhi sought election in a bypoll and converted every attack on her into an advantage. Politically, she was never gnawed by self-doubt and when she returned to office, her authoritarian streak redoubled. In contrast, the BJP was unsure of its orientation after the 2004 shock defeat. This was best underscored in Lal Krishna Advani’s woolliness during his visit to Pakistan a year later. For much of the period that the BJP strove to mount a challenge to Congress — before Narendra Modi came along — it was tough to say if the BJP was shedding its Hindutva garb completely or keeping it as a spare.

The Congress Party’s performance last year can be clubbed along with the worst electoral performances for incumbents in Indian annals. It was easy for critics to pillory the party and fault its failure to conduct a honest post-mortem. But pinning blame and accepting responsibility after an electoral rout is not part of Indian political tradition, because politics is an enterprise. In the narrative beyond the parliamentary polls, the Congress lost more ground and yielded Maharashtra and Haryana to the BJP. Nothing that the party did was right.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, the Congress has, since April, succeeded in finding its voice and was able to successfully stall Parliament. Regardless of where he went, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi came back with confidence and a roar. His job was made simpler because the Modi government made tactical miscalculations, allowed strategy to be dictated by hubris and gave palace intrigues a free run. But has this translated into any benefit for the Congress? Can Rahul Gandhi say with conviction that he has rung in the process of the party’s revival?

So far, the Congress strategy is limited to preventing the Rajya Sabha from functioning, making a few wisecracks (“suit boot ki sarkar”) and pledging support selectively for those taking up cudgels against the government. In Indian politics, votes are sought by incumbent parties by citing achievements. Correspondingly, Opposition parties do not seek votes on the basis of promised policies but by citing failures of the party in office. Preventing legislative business has become a legitimate tool and is used by all parties. It would serve Mr Gandhi’s interests if he realised that repeated use of this strategy can be counter-productive.

On the long road to political recovery, the Congress has to firstly redefine its ideological stance and position on the political canvas. Political rhetoric must be balanced with reasoned opinion on critical issues. Say, for instance, on One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) Mr Gandhi said what any Opposition leader would: “Modi should announce a date for implementation”. But this is not what people expect from him. He must offer a solution as if his party was in power. If the Congress vice-president must appear any different from other Opposition leaders, he should display the responsibility one expects from a party which governed India for so many years.

Mr Gandhi’s predicament is that he is contesting Mr Modi on his turf using his tools. In his battle for regaining the party’s lost glory, Mr Gandhi must draw lessons from his grandmother’s comeback diary and not from his father’s notebook during the 15 or 16 months of drift after losing power. It is time that he became his own man.

The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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