Instead of shooting straight at the commonly agreed target, the BJP, why is the Congress shooting sideways at its coalition partners like the Left, Mayawati and the AAP? Take Rahul’s choice of Wayanad as his constituency in South India. It is understandable that the president of a national party wants to distinguish himself from his regional coalition partners — he is national; they are regional. There is another reason for a seat in the South.
There was a certain resonance about “Indiramma” in the South. Even when Indira Gandhi was trounced by the electorate in 1977 for her Emergency misdemeanours, she retained her hold in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. True to form, Indira Gandhi removed the powerful Channa Reddy from Andhra Pradesh and placed on the gaddi in Hyderabad a weak, even a comical Tanguturi Anjaiah, whom she had known as a junior labour minister at the Centre.
Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi and his cocky cousin and adviser, Arun Nehru, roundly insulted the chief minister by keeping him outside the Hyderabad airport lounge while he and the young Prime Minister discussed matters of the moment. It was only after that “insult” became part of popular gossip that N.T. Rama Rao placed his cinematic charisma at the disposal of “Andhra Pride”. That is how the Telugu Desam Party was formed. N. Chandrababu Naidu, a talented administrator, is the late NTR’s son-in-law.
If Andhra and Telangana were a little inhospitable for Rahul Gandhi, a seat in Karnataka would have been custom made for the Congress president. His arrival would have given further coherence to the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance, which is pitted against a fiercely competitive BJP. BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa leapt with joy when Balakot happened: “The BJP will now win 22 out of 28 seats in Karnataka.” Rahul’s participation in this battle would have boosted the combine’s chances and his image as an anti-BJP campaigner.
In Wayanad he is not fighting against the BJP. He is fighting the Left Front. This confusion has been persistent in the Congress’ approach to 2019. A party with 44 seats in Parliament cannot dream of fighting the BJP on its own. It needs allies. The difficulty is that its quest for allies collides with its innate urge to revive. This causes it to lose focus of the main target, the BJP, and poach in the turf of its would-be allies.
Ideally, the dominant parties in the regions — for example, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal — should have been given the luxury of concentrating on one target — the BJP. In this framework, the Congress should have concentrated on Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the party did well in the recent Assembly elections. But this conflicts with the party’s self-image of being a national party.
How realistic is this “self-image”? In 1947, the Congress represented shades of interests federated behind a programme for freedom. Extreme, sometimes conflictual ideologies, simmered in the Congress cauldron. Take this example. V.K. Krishna Menon, a leftist in the Congress, fought an election from Mumbai the same year that arch-capitalist S.K. Patil did from another district in the city.
In 1967, eight seats were lost to Indira Gandhi. The diverse elements within the Congress were leaving it one by one. The “Hindu” in the Congress DNA was always pronounced. Madan Mohan Malaviya, Purushottam Das Tandon, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant were never creatures of what Jawaharlal Nehru sought to market as “composite culture”. They wanted a Hindu India; while Nehru wanted a secular India led by Hindus. It was a complex aspiration. If Nehru were around, who would he blame for the current mess?
The post-Babri Masjid haemorrhaging was in two streams. The lower end of the caste pyramid flowed to the caste parties. The reminder, by and large, became inter-changeable with the BJP. There has been a bewildering volume of toing and froing between the BJP and the Congress.
It is against this backdrop that observers will gauge the party’s long-term intentions. The irony is that the manifesto that Rahul Gandhi unveiled is a document of substance which qualifies the party to be slotted as a progressive, left of centre force. This image alone will distinguish it from the BJP, whose “B team” it had begun to look like in its recent avatar.
It is possible to argue that whichever way Kerala’s 20 parliamentary seats are divided, all the seats will be listed in the margin of parties in opposition to the BJP. But there is a nuance in Kerala’s electoral politics which needs to be understood.
After decades of trying, the BJP has only one seat in the Assembly. This is not for want of RSS cadres. The initial thrust of the Sangh Parivar in the state was to weaken the Left in Kerala. Congress leaders like K. Karunakaran exploited the BJP’s anti-Left slant to the UDF’s advantage. In fact, there was a phase when two diametrically opposite attitudes towards the BJP had legitimacy within the Congress. Arjun Singh, the Nehruvian secularist in the Congress, fought the BJP tooth and nail in Madhya Pradesh. K. Karunakaran, on the other hand, had a subtle, unstated coordination with the BJP in Kerala.
By taking Wayanad in preference to other constituencies in the South, Rahul has decided to take on the Left. To revive as a national force, there are two paths that the Congress can aspire to tread. It can aspire to recover its ground from the BJP. In which case, it will become like the BJP. It already is halfway there: it is commonly taunted as the BJP’s “B” team. Or it can do something more creative. A poor, developing country will always need a left of centre party, something in the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn mould. It can seek a wider coalition with the Left and the enlightened wing of industry which sees the crisis of capitalism clear as daylight. Some elements of this are already there in the manifesto.