Rahul Gandhi, the newly-anointed president of the Congress party, reacted to the results of the Gujarat assembly election 2017 saying that the polls had delivered the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a zabardast jhatka (terrific shock), exposing Narendra Modi's credibility crisis (The Times of India, 2017). The Gujarat elections were no ordinary elections; they could be considered a prelude to the 2019 national election that beholds the palpable danger of India being formally transformed into a fascist Hindu rashtra if the BJP continues on its winning streak.
Gujarat offered the Congress a unique opportunity to win this election. It was the first Gujarat state election in 22 years that did not project Modi as the chief minister or show any credible face in his place. The anti-incumbency factor coupled with BJP's complacency and arrogance had put the ruling party on its backfoot. All the notable communities in the state (the Patidars under Hardik Patel's leadership, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) under Alpesh Thakor, and the Dalits galvanised by Jignesh Mevani) had openly and vocally taken stands against the BJP. Farmers suffering from an aggravated agrarian crisis, youth facing rising unemployment, and traders and petty businesspersons (BJP's core constituency) agitated by demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) were also voicing their dissent. What more could the opposition have wished for? If, against all these odds, the BJP still won a comfortable majority in the assembly with an increased percentage of votes, one wonders what shock Gandhi was speaking of.
Congress's Competitive Deficit
The polling percentage in Gujarat for this 2017 election was 68.3%, less than the 71.3% polled in 2012, signifying a decline in public enthusiasm. This is also highlighted by the huge number of votes polled for "none of the above" (NOTA). Over 5.52 lakh voters (1.8% of total votes) chose the NOTA option, far more than the 2.07 lakh and 1.85 lakh votes secured by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) respectively, registering their silent dissent against the state of politics. Most commentators have commended the Congress for its performance as it got 16 more seats than what it bagged five years ago. BJP's overall vote share plunged from 60.11% notched in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 49.1%, however, it rose from 47.85% in the 2012 assembly elections. Congress's vote share also rose to about 41.4% this time, up from 33% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and from 38.9% in the 2012 assembly polls. The difference in vote share between them has also come down from 8.85% in 2012 to 7.7% this time, as it had from 10.4% in the assembly polls held immediately after the 2002 polls to 9.49% in the 2007 elections. Based on the Lok Sabha 2014 elections, in which the BJP had swept the polls with 60.11% votes, the BJP has lost in 66 assembly segments and the Congress that scored just 33.45% votes then, and zero seats, has won in 63 assembly segments. Thanks to India's first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system, despite increased vote share of 1.25%, BJP lost 17 seats. Congress, of course, gained 19 seats. Surely, Congress has done better than before but to what avail is the FPTP system?
This time, it had a unique and visible advantage. The Patidars or Patels, accounting for about 14% of the population and 25% members of legislative assembly (MLAs) in the previous assembly, have traditionally been a BJP-voting community. The community, deemed to be crucial in determining the results of about 65 of the total 182 assembly seats, were up in arms against the BJP on the issue of reservation. Simultaneously, however, they looked split in terms of voting; the rural population supported the Congress and urban voters still rooted for the BJP. While to some extent it was expected, the BJP certainly made a dent into the Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) by buying off some of his comrades. The OBCs constituting 45%-50% of the total votes in Gujarat and influential in 71 seats, and hence especially favoured by Modi, had declaredly put their weight on the side of the Congress. Whereas Dalits, accounting for 7% of the population and traditionally Congress-voters, were openly against the BJP. The tribals, accounting for 14.75% population of the state, and influential in a total of 37 constituencies, have been divided between the BJP and the Congress.
While all these communities cannot be assumed to vote in unison, they were clearly leaning towards the Congress when the elections were declared. Still the Congress failed to beat the BJP among these communities. Out of 52 seats where the Patidar factor is 20% and more, BJP won 28, whereas Congress bagged only 23, one going to an independent. Among the Scheduled Castes, BJP won 8 and Congress only 5, including Mevani as independent whom it supported. Only among the Scheduled Tribes did the Congress win 16 as against 9 of the BJP. However, among the tribal-dominated seats, the BJP won 19 seats as against the Congress's 15, two seats going to the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), and one to an independent.
Modi's Combating Prowess
The situation in Gujarat was such that without Modi, the BJP would have certainly lost the elections. Modi knew the importance of Gujarat in the run-up to the 2019 elections and went all out to win it forgetting the decency and decorum of the office he held. To start with, the elections were postponed to a convenient time through the pliant Election Commission of India. The convention of convening the winter session of Parliament was broken for the sake of it. Dodging the code of conduct, course correction on the GST front was effected to assuage angry voters. But with all this when Gujarat appeared to be slipping off his grip, he did not hesitate to stoop down to a new low of alleging a Pakistan-led conspiracy hatched along with the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Vice President Hamid Ansari, former Indian Army Chief Deepak Kapoor, four foreign secretaries and former Indian diplomats to Pakistan, as also some military analysts to influence the Gujarat elections. Even Rahul Gandhi's entry by someone in the register for non-Hindus at Somnath temple and Kapil Sibal's intervention on the Ayodhya case was used to tarnish the Congress, using his pet tactics to arouse the Hindus communally. There was not a word on the Gujarat model of development in the jingoist din around nationalism, which Modi had touted to fool the masses into voting him to power in 2014.
Gandhi's Ineffectual Show
Rahul Gandhi had certainly taken the Gujarat elections seriously, spending 23 days and addressing over 65 rallies/meetings across the state, churning out slightly better punchlines such as vikas gando thayo chhe (development has gone crazy), or Shah-zada (royal prince) as a potshot at Amit Shah's son. There were, however, a few silly ones too, for instance Gabbar Singh Tax (implying GST is vile) or Abhishek Bachchan bhi dynast hai (Abhishek Bachchan too is a dynast) in defence of his dynastic rise. But contrary to media assessment and praises from his sycophant supporters, he has again failed to measure up to his formidable adversary. The Congress is still showing ostrich-like signs, waiting for voters to get disillusioned with the BJP and refusing to see its own increasing irrelevance. Modi, besides his extraordinary oratorial and theatrical skills with which he dishes out half-truths and pure lies with dexterity and impresses Indian masses reared on hero worship, is also the choice of global capital. Gandhi, not endowed with any of these skills, simply cannot compete with him head-on. He must do a kind of SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) analysis of not only his party but also himself, and come out with a viable strategy to stop Modi in his tracks. He does not reflect any such vision in the wake of repeated electoral losses his party has incurred or political understanding to sense the imminent danger facing the Congress.
BJP's success is not entirely its own; it owes most of it to the ineptitude of the Congress. If Rajiv Gandhi had not reversed the Shah Bano judgment, or opened the locks of the Ram Lalla temple in Ayodhya, or Narasimha Rao had not allowed Hindutva marauders to assemble at the Babri Masjid, to recall recent history, Modi would not have reached where he has today. The rot runs deeper and can be traced back to the days of the making of the post-colonial state under the brute majority of the Congress when it consecrated castes and religion into the Constitution. Even today, a majority of people do not favour the BJP; its 2014 popular vote being just 31%. Despite the knowledge of its past sins, nearly all progressive people of India backed the Congress electorally just to prevent the BJP from realising its diabolic goal. But Gandhi would frustrate them with his confused conduct. He played into Modi's trap and visited 27 Hindu temples in Gujarat and also claimed that he was a janevu-wearing Brahmin, not only exhibiting so-called "soft Hindutva" but also flaunting casteist notions that could easily alienate the lower castes, particularly Dalits. Why could he not claim like the Mahatma Gandhi that he was a Bhangi by choice for being a Hindu? Congress's strategic bankruptcy lies in its imagination that Gandhi can defeat the BJP with his Hinduness and Brahminhood, instead unwittingly legitimising BJP's politics as his predecessors have done.
Unfortunately, within the available time window, people do not have any recourse other than relying on him to save India from becoming fascist.
(Anand Teltumbde is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.)
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