Congress president Rahul Gandhi should run tutorials on “How Not To Win Elections” and “How To Contest This Election While Actually Preparing For The Next One”. Except that someone may ask for their money back because has not Sakshi Maharaj, BJP member of the Lok Sabha from Unnao, said that these polls will be the last?
Campaigning is still underway for five of the seven phases of polling and 354 seats remain up for grabs, while the verdict keeps being anyone’s guess. Yet, it can be deduced that the lower Index of Opposition Unity than what had appeared possible several months ago is giving the BJP fewer anxious moments.
Although the ruling party is not yet out of the woods, there is no mistaking that the commitment of the Opposition parties to join forces has dipped dramatically in recent months. When Mamata Banerjee spelt out last year that the Opposition parties should target one-to-one contests across India, it had appeared that although this was not a realistic target, it was possible to come together in a sizeable number of seats.
Even if some of these alliances were not formal or open pacts, the possibility of indirect seat adjustments between major players existed. Ironically, the hopes of alliances across states began declining sharply from January-February, the time that the BJP and Narendra Modi began getting its electoral narrative on a track which suited it.
The Twitter spat earlier this week between Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Sanjay Singh obviously is demonstrative of the threesome being particularly talentless when it comes to forging political alliances. Even the most politically naive leader has grown up with the adage that no one washes dirty linen in public. By making public their disagreement, these leaders have demonstrated that both parties consider each other the principal foe and not the BJP.
Alarm bells had rung in January last week when Rahul Gandhi announced the party’s decision to appoint his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as AICC general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, heralding her entry into politics. While making the announcement, Mr Gandhi declared that his party’s eyes were set not just on 2019, but also on 2022, when Assembly elections will be held in Uttar Pradesh. This declaration sounded alarm bells in the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance (at that time the Rashtriya Lok Dal was yet to sign up formally for this pact) because the eyes being set on 2022 meant that the Congress was aiming to not just improve its prospects in UP in these elections, but was also taking a shot at forming the next government in the state.
Because the Congress can grow in UP beyond a certain level only at the cost of the SP-BSP combine, Mr Gandhi’s declaration virtually ended whatever possibility existed of the Congress being a part of a Bihar-style “Mahagathbandhan” in the state. Thereafter, the way the campaign has proceeded and the reports that are emerging from constituencies suggest that the Congress is playing the spoiler in a large number of seats and the BJP is going to be the likely beneficiary. It required no knowledge of rocket science for any practitioner of politics to know that if the Congress was not part of an Opposition front and was setting up candidates in all the seats, the anti-BJP vote would get split. This is what is happening, although it is early to deduce the extent to which it will benefit the BJP.
After promising to work for Opposition unity and minimising the division of the anti-BJP vote, the Congress has firmed up alliances only in the following states — Kerala (where its decades-old United Democratic Front continues), Tamil Nadu (another old alliance with the DMK, the Communist parties and other regional forces), Karnataka (new alliance but the result of its coalition with the Janata Dal-Secular, Maharashtra (old pact with NCP and smaller parties), Bihar and Jharkhand (old partners).
The Congress has been discussing an alliance in Delhi (and possibly in Haryana as well) for several weeks, and while it is reportedly almost a done deal, the long delay and the mixed signals sent to workers and supporters of the two parties will not really help matters come election day. The Congress could have, or should have, also forged pacts in Madhya Pradesh, UP and West Bengal. There are 168 seats from these states and the BJP will be the direct beneficiary in each of the states. In West Bengal, the Congress needed to act as the bridge between the Trinamul Congress and the Left. Such indirect pacts have a history, most notably in 1989, when the Janata Dal had simultaneous alliances with the BJP on the one hand and the Left parties on the other. Effectively, the BJP and the Communist parties, undoubtedly on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, ended up strengthening each other in pursuit of the common objective of defeating the incumbent Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi.
While the need for a pact in UP and Delhi is well known, the Congress also needed to be much more accommodative in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and even Rajasthan, where minor additions to the vote tally of the Opposition parties would have made a significant difference in the final tally. The story in these states is the same as during the Assembly polls in November-December 2018 when the Congress and the BSP adopted a tougher posture vis-a-vis one another, aiding the BJP to salvage the situation. Although the party was voted out in all the three states, the margin of its defeat in MP and Rajasthan was wafer thin, chiefly because of split in the anti-BJP vote.
Whereas this should have taught the Congress, BSP and SP a few lessons in electoral mathematics, the leaders of the three parties remained as uncompromising as before. It is certain that if the BJP is able to escape with a scare and return to office, a considerable part of the blame would be apportioned to the Congress and other Opposition parties, which too should have been more yielding when it came to forging an electoral pact. This election’s story may eventually be one of what could have been.
The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984