20 Dec 2018 20:35 IST

Congress wins the ‘semi-finals’

With Congress wresting power from BJP in three crucial States, the political theatre is buzzing again

The results of the elections to the five State Assemblies, which were declared last week, have by now been analysed threadbare. By winning in three States, the Congress can be safely declared as the winner of what is being dubbed the ‘semi-finals’, before next year’s general elections.

In Telangana, it was a landslide for the ruling TRS, denting Chandrababu Naidu’s ambitions of playing a larger role in national politics.

But the Congress can feel justifiably proud that it managed to wrest power from the BJP in three crucial Hindi heartland States. These three States send 65 MPs to the Lok Sabha, and the BJP had won 62 among them in 2014. That the winds have been blowing towards the Opposition were apparent from last year’s Gujarat elections. In Gujarat, a BJP bastion and PM Narendra Modi’s home State, it was touch-and-go for the BJP, and it was only Modi’s hectic campaigning, on the back of an extremely polarising agenda, that did the trick for the BJP. In Karnataka early this year, the BJP, despite Modi’s campaigning couldn’t quite manage to consolodate its position, and a Congress-JD(S) combine rules.

Taking the lead

The writing has been on the wall for the BJP for quite some time now. These elections results should surely add a spring to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s step. Rahul, who has been much maligned, derided and mocked, took the fight to the BJP and ran a spirited campaign. The BJP should realise that Rahul is no longer a pushover and must start taking him seriously, what with the general elections just a few months away.

There are two broad lessons to be drawn from these Assembly election results. One, a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front remains a non-starter. Two in any broad non-BJP coalition, the Congress will now play the leading role. The alacrity with which both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party extended their support to the Congress in Madhya Pradesh after the results were announced is a clear pointer to this.

Farmers’ distress was a major issue in these elections, at least in the Hindi heartland States. Demonetisation and the shoddy implementation of the GST were also major issues. Ironically, commentators who had dubbed the note ban as an ‘economic disaster but political masterstroke’, especially after the BJP’s thumping victory in UP last year, would have to reassess their position. If these trends are anything to go by, these issues are also likely to play a major role in next year’s general elections.

Besides the BJP’s move to amp up the Ram Temple issue also seems to have backfired, at least for the time being. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was fielded as BJP’s star campaigner but his rhetoric clearly failed to enthuse the voters.

Also Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping and his new-found devotion to Lord Shiva clearly paid electoral dividends in Madhya Pradesh. He visited all major temples in MP, with his programme meticulously planned by the local Congress. Even before his campaigning began, his trip to Kailash Mansarovar in August received much publicity and much mirth from the BJP. But the Congress’ soft Hindutva stance has reaped political dividends, which must worry the BJP as it cannot take the Hindu votes for granted.

Soft Hindutva

Though Rahul Gandhi’s religious turn has dismayed the Left-Liberals, it is not in the least bit surprising. The Congress in the past has never shied away from seeking Hindu votes even while paying lip service to secularism. In fact Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide victory in the 1984 elections, in the backdrop of his mother’s assassination and the raging Punjab militancy, and the ghastly anti-Sikh riots, was delivered largely by Hindu votes.

Also by opening the lock of the disputed site at Ayodhya and allowing the ‘Shilanyas’ in 1989, the Congress had clearly pandered to Hindu votes. As the Congress has a hoary history of ‘soft Hindutva’, the hand-wringing by the Left-Liberals now seems hollow.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, on the party’s most articulate leaders, conceded as much that by keeping religion in the private sphere the Congress will lose, as the BJP will cleverly posit it as a battle between “true Hindus and Godless secularists”. Tharoor also called Rahul Gandhi as “one of the most thoughtful, best-read Indian politicians on issues of religion and spirituality”. So we can expect more ‘temple-hopping’ from the Congress President in the coming months.

But the recent Assembly election results are a shot in the arm for the Congress. For those who thought the 2019 victory for the BJP was a foregone conclusion, the ‘semi-finals’ were a rude jolt. The great Indian political theatre has come alive again.