Saturday, December 14, 2013

Time to send out friend requests

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something quite compelling about the what-if, counterfactual history that fascinates people. Would the bloody World War of 1914-18 have been averted if the chauffer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand not taken a wrong turn in the town of Sarajevo? Would Partition of India have been averted had the Congress leadership known that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was suffering from a deadly cancer and was living on borrowed time?

These are interesting subjects for intellectual mind-games on a winter’s evening in the hills. However, there is no percentage in the BJP lamentation that victory in three more seats in Delhi last Sunday would have made the party’s forward march appear even more emphatic. Equally, there is little credibility in the assertion made by beleaguered secular crusaders from Barkha Dutt to Nitish Kumar that Narendra Modi’s contribution to the BJP victory was zero because the party’s vote fell in Delhi. To the uninitiated observer, the overall winner of this round of elections was the BJP. And since Modi is the national face of the BJP, he has to count as an overall winner too, just as his political standing would have been affected had the Congress won any of the four states. The exemption clause that insulates the ‘dynasty’ from any responsibility for adversity and catapults it to the top of the credit-seekers’ queue in the event of a triumph does not, mercifully, apply to individuals with lesser pedigrees.

Fortunately, there is more to the just-concluded round of elections than the conflicting theories on the likely impact of Modi. What stares everyone in the face most starkly is the inescapable conclusion that a Congress-led UPA Government is very unlikely to be returned to power next year.

Admittedly, Sonia Gandhi has taken heed of the disappointing results and promised yet another bout of the mandatory ‘introspection’; and Rahul Gandhi has promised to attend to the structural shortcomings of the Congress with exceptional purposefulness. There has also been an announcement that the Congress will go into the 2014 general election with a pre-determined prime ministerial candidate. Yet, none of these grand proclamations can take away from the fact that the average Congress activist and leader is approaching the 2014 Lok Sabha poll dejected and dispirited. During confessional, the party may be coerced into admitting that it is fighting the Lok Sabha poll not to win, but to prevent a Modi-led BJP from winning.

In the coming days, we are likely to witness even more dirt being hurled at Modi by sting operations that bear the sponsorship mark of the Congress. We may even witness a last-ditch attempt by fanatical ultra-loyalists to dethrone the Prime Minister and replace him with a member of the first family. If the desperation to cling on to power proves too irresistible, the country could even witness some pretty adventurist schemes to trigger social polarisation that could be sought to be blamed on Modi or his associates.

The possibilities are endless but it is unlikely that they will produce the mythical “late, reverse swing” that fanciful Congressmen detected in Rajasthan and courtier-journalists gleamed in Madhya Pradesh. Actually, the experience of Madhya Pradesh is worth narrating, not least because an unnatural sense of deference by the media has prevented many uncomfortable facts from emerging. For two months it was propagated that the quasi-official anointment of Jyotiraditya Scindia as the Congress’ chief ministerial choice had made the race tighter. Scindia, it was suggested, would really make Shivraj Singh Chauhan sweat.

The results suggest that far from boosting the Congress’ tally against a 10-year-old government, Scindia’s leadership, the number of seats won by the party actually fell by 13. To be fair, this failure can’t be pinned on Scindia alone. However, it suggests that even a supposedly more energetic leader on his own can’t reverse a larger trend. Regardless of whether the Congress goes into battle with Rahul Gandhi or P.Chidambaram or even (as some suggest) a technocrat such as Nandan Nilekani at the helm, the party has to bear the full weight of the anti-Congress wave sweeping through much of India.

This has implications for the likes of Nitish Kumar who believed that an understanding with the Congress would boost his prospects. As things stand at present, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar must be wondering whether any identification with the Congress will involve inheriting a negative sentiment. Sharad Pawar expressed this quite openly after the results and the same thoughts must be going through the minds of the DMK leadership in Tamil Nadu. The Aaam Aadmi Party and its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal may be projected as the emerging third alternative by a section of the editorial class anxious to clutch on to any anti-Modi straw. But AAP’s ability to strike roots outside Delhi is doubtful and will be limited to linkages with the so-called ‘people’s movements’ against development projects in some states. In any case, it is still too early for AAP to dilute the purity of its mission by teaming up with either the established Left or with potential constituents of the mythical Third Front.

The outcome of the four Assembly elections, particularly the despondency in the Congress, has given the BJP its best opportunity for attracting new allies in at least Haryana, Jharkhand and Karnataka. Despite the opposition to each of these measures from within, it would be imprudent for the BJP to bask in majestic isolation and delay matters too much.

Last Sunday, the BJP took a few more steps in the direction of its goal of winning power in Delhi. A few more smart moves aimed at seizing the moment will see them tantalizingly close to their final objective. But, as the Delhi results revealed, to be within smelling distance of victory isn’t the same as winning. 

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