Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
The Rahul Gandhi-Narendra Modi battle has taken a sharp turn. In 2014, the media pitted the two against each other, with the sly intent of showing Gandhi, then a greenhorn, as no match to the tested Hindutva warrior Modi, who wore the scars of the 2002 Gujarat riots rather proudly on his sleeve and spoke in a monotonous tone about development and jobs, without ever mentioning Hindutva, or the Ram Temple in Ayodhya for once during his election campaign.
At the same time Modi made the cunning move of contesting from Varanasi, and entrusting the party’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh to confidante Amit Shah. The moves paid rich dividends, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP, and Modi winning his Varanasi seat and giving up the Vadodara seat, from where the Gujarat chief minister won the 2002 assembly election on the issue of Gujarati ‘asmita’ or self-respect. By abandoning Gujarat and adopting UP, Modi tied his political fortune and that of his party to the Hindi heartland. When the party won an overwhelming majority in the UP assembly elections in March 2017, it seemed that Modi’s strategy has been vindicated.
But the certitude of the BJP’s stranglehold in the Hindi heartland was shaken with the party’s defeat in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. And after more than a year of BJP’s rule in UP under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the ground from beneath the feet of Modi and BJP is slipping away.
The BJP is worried and it is hard at clawing its way back, but it may not do so in the emphatic manner it had done in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The wheel of fortune has turned.
2014: Congress Slide
Congress was reduced to sub-50 tally of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2014, a steep slide from the 202 strength in the House after the 2009 general elections. Ever since, except Punjab, the Congress lost Maharashtra, Haryana and Assam assembly elections. It is against this background that the Congress’ victories in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh should be seen. The party is finding its feet back again and it is back in the reckoning.
The BJP cannot hope to have a cake-walk in 2019. Gandhi has emerged a doughty fighter who has not only taken on the redoubtable Modi but has also defeated him fair and square in these state elections. Modi is no more invincible and Gandhi no more a political pygmy. Rather, Gandhi has become the David to Modi’s Goliath. These are indeed the glorious uncertainties of the game of politics!
After four-and-a-half years in office at the centre, the BJP looks quite shaken by the electoral reverses in the three Hindi heartland states, and analysts within the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh (RSS), which plays the role of coach to Team BJP, and inside BJP as well as in the media, are trying to understand the BJP’s debacle under the stewardship of the Modi-Shah duo.
The halo of invincibility that mainstream media had created around Prime Minister Modi and party president Shah has paled, and there are no ready answers as to how a Congress, forever racked by internal squabbles under an apparently weak like Gandhi, managed to steal victory from Modi’s BJP.
The impact of the defeats in these three states is seen in the responses of Modi and Gandhi. The Congress president has realised the secret of sustained aggression, and he continues to target Modi day in and day out, from pronouncements in public rallies and press conferences to bites before television news channel cameras. Gandhi is literally pummeling Modi, and at the moment Modi is a little helpless in hitting back.
While Modi attacks Gandhi and his family, Gandhi targets the prime minister’s failures to deliver on the promises. The evidence in the Rafale jet fighter deal is neither substantive nor clinching, but Gandhi is keeping at it relentlessly, saying Modi ‘chowkidar chor hai’, alluding to Modi’s much vaunted description of himself as the chowkidar (guard) of the country.
The BJP is not in a position to laugh away Gandhi’s verbal sallies. They are forced to rebut him, and that in itself is a big change. Gandhi is not resting on his laurels post-victory in the three states. He has stepped up the attack.
The aggression may or may not pay off in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but Gandhi seems determined to deliver his blows to Modi, whatever may be the outcome next summer. It appears that Rahul unconsciously nurses the hurt and humiliation of the BJP and the rest of the Opposition cornering his father and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors kickbacks controversy where no clinching proof was shown that Rajiv took bribes. Gandhi, it seems, is hitting back with the grudge-fuelled passion that his innocent father was politically crucified. There is more than political rivalry when the Congress president speaks about the Rafale deal.
Modi continues with his aggressive tone and tenor, but it has become dull and its sharpness is flattened because he had been maintaining the same pitch in the last four-and-a-half years. His attacks on the Nehru-Gandhis remain unabated but people are not any more amused, and even the obsessive-compulsive Nehru-Gandhi-baiters want something new from the prime minister.
But sooner than later, Modi has to take on Gandhi man-to-man, and answer the issues raised by the Congress president. There is also a strategic compulsion for Modi and BJP wanting to single out Gandhi and the Congress from among the Opposition parties.
Modi feels that it is not right for his national stature to stoop to take on Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav or All India Trinamool Congress leader and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The only leader he can take on as an equal is Gandhi, the leader of the other national party, however reduced its presence may be across the country.
In this fresh duel with Gandhi, Modi is on a weak wicket. If he scores over the Congress president it does not rebound to his credit because he is considered a tall leader and Gandhi is not tall in comparison. If Gandhi scores points, including brownies, against Modi, it shows the prime minister in a bad light. The prime minister is in an unenviable no-win situation. The mainstream media shares the same dilemma with Gandhi as Modi. They cannot any more ignore him and they feel embarrassed to give him the space that they contemptuously thought he did not deserve all these years. They have to report his speeches, do his interviews, do his profiles, speculate about his future moves and analyse his decisions. Had the BJP and the media not made Modi the larger-than-life icon, then the clash between Gandhi and Modi would have remained a clash between leaders of two big parties, like in any other democracy. Some of the pro-BJP analysts are still harping on the theme of the presidential style of campaign that Modi had introduced, where the contest is not between the parties but between the two main leaders. The underlying argument is that there is no other leader with the national footprint that Modi has, and that Gandhi’s nationwide reach is laughable compared to Modi, and therefore Modi wins this presidential fight hands down.
It is turning out to be a hallucination of sorts, because on the ground it is parties and the candidates, the local caste arithmetic that still rule the roost in Indian politics. The election results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh do not reflect the clash between Modi and Gandhi. As a matter of fact, they are nowhere on the scene. People had voted out the governments of Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, and they voted Congress in a tenuous manner in Madhya Pradesh (Total number of seats: 230; Congress: 114 seats (40.9 per cent vote share); BJP: 109 seats (41 per cent vote share) and in Rajasthan (Total number of seats: 199; Congress: 99 seats (39.3 per cent vote share); BJP: 73 seats (38.8 per cent vote share) and decisively in Chhattisgarh (Total number of seats: 90; Congress: 68 seats (43 per cent vote share); BJP: 15 seats (33 per cent vote share).
A marginalised senior Congress leader wryly remarked that even victories need to be analysed as defeats are, and pointed that the Congress’ victory margin in the number of seats won and vote percentage garnered in Madhya Pradesh was dangerously narrow, as was the vote percentage in Rajasthan, though the margin of the number of seats won is quite convincing. In these two states, the Congress had failed to reach the halfway mark, 116 in Madhya Pradesh and 100 in Rajasthan.
The Chhattisgarh poll verdict is crystal clear. Congress has a two-thirds majority, which the BJP in its last three terms never got. The BJP won 50 seats in Chhattisgarh in 2003 and in 2008 and 49 in 2013. Congress won 37 seats in 2003, 38 in 2008 and 39 in 2013.
The story in Rajasthan in the previous three elections is quite different. BJP won 120 seats in 2003 and Congress 56 in 2003, Congress won 96 and the BJP 78 in 2008, and the BJP won a two-thirds majority with 163 seats in 2013 to Congress’ 21.
In Madhya Pradesh the Congress had been far behind the BJP. In 2003, BJP won 173 seats and Congress 38, in 2008 BJP won 143 and Congress 71, and in 2013, BJP won 165 and the Congress 58.
The performance of the two major parties in these three states is intriguing as well. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, BJP had won 25 seats in Madhya Pradesh and Congress 4. In Rajasthan, BJP had won 21 and Congress 4. And in Chhattisgarh, BJP won 10 and Congress 1. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, BJP won 16 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Congress 12; in Rajasthan, BJP won 4 and Congress 20; and in Chhattisgarh BJP won 10 and Congress 1. In 2014, BJP won 27 seats in Madhya Pradesh and Congress 2; in Rajasthan, BJP won 25 and Congress none; and in Chhattisgarh, BJP won 10 and Congress 1. The score in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will change, and the BJP will stand to lose more and the Congress could gain more compared to the 2014 figures, and they could be closer to the 2009 figures.
The presidential-style battle between Modi and Gandhi will happen only in mainstream media. The Indian voter in this vast and diverse country has other criteria in his mind. The local candidate and the strength of the party in each state will count for more than the charisma of Modi or Gandhi. Gandhi has an advantage in this devolutionary political battle because Congress with its fissiparous tendencies stands to gain compared to the nearly homogenous and monolithic BJP under Modi. BJP is brittle because it is under the unified command of Modi.
Gandhi had to struggle in deciding who would be the chief minister in each of these three states, as he had to contend with factional feuds and demands. What might appear to be a weakness of the Congress could turn out to be an advantage, because the old party is responsive to local demands and there is intense internal competition between groups and leaders.
In a paradoxical manner, democracy is at work in the Congress, though the party is unable to shake off the Nehru-Gandhi family shackles. The BJP, which is ostensibly democratic in choosing its leader, seems to be at a loss under Modi because of the absence of inner party diversity. What was an advantage for Modi in 2014 will be a disadvantage in 2019. Gandhi leading a raucous party is strong because he has to contend with diversity inside the party and in the country.