Time to throw away the crutches
I was startled, at first confounded and then rather pleasantly surprised when most Congressmen I spoke to expressed their delight at the results to the recently concluded elections in five states, including last month’s civic polls in Bombay.
“We deserved this kick on our backsides and this defeat was extremely crucial to bring our leaders down a peg or two and offer them a reality check. They were getting too complacent and arrogant by far,” has been the refrain and reaction from almost everyone I spoke to.
The end conclusion: they are disappointed in part but not quite shattered. One reason for this unusual reaction is that while the Congress, as one of the two main national parties might have lost, the other party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has not done too well either, despite the general public mood against the Congress and the fact that it was the BJP rather than the regional parties, most of who are allies of the Congress, which was at the forefront of the anti-corruption agitation at the Centre.
“So, while we are somewhat disappointed, we are not devastated,” one Congress general secretary told me. “Our eye is mainly on 2014 and if this had not happened now, we might have been complacent to the end and lost the Lok Sabha. This defeat now is likely to galvanize all party cadres. But, more importantly, it is likely to bring our hopelessly clueless leaders down to earth!”
From what I can gather, most of the Congress workers in Uttar Pradesh were pretty unhappy at union law minister Salman Khursheed’s rhetoric on reservations for Muslims which they felt needlessly ‘communalised’ the elections. Former UP chief minister Mayawati might then not be too far wrong in blaming both the Congress and the BJP for adding to the Samajwadi Party’s tally. For, as one Congress observer from UP told me,”Khursheed’s refrain only made us look as the ‘B’ team of both the SP and the BJP. For while we followed in the saffron party’s footsteps in attempting to divide the electorate on religious lines, we were clearly a wannabe SP in terms of attempting to garner the Muslim vote by hook or by crook. In the end, both Hindus and Muslims voted in large numbers for the SP and that should be a lesson to us all.”
While it is refreshing to be faced with such frankness from Congressmen, I am also doubly happy to note that this is the election which has perhaps ushered out communal politics forever. For while the BJP lost Ayodhya for the first time since 1991, even Punjab proved that it is development and secularism that count for more. For the first time ever, the Shiromani Akali Dal did not seek the help of deras or other religious gurus for a vote and they opened their doors to non-Sikhs too, predictably taking away the Congress’s USP of representing all sections and being all things to all people. Other factors, like corruption, development, et al, being equal, now the Congress has something really grave on the horizon to brood about.
And this is where they must take Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar’s warning seriously. In the run-up to the civic elections in Bombay, Pawar had believed the Shiv Sena would be soundly defeated and unable to resurrect itself in a hurry. “The next battle would then be between the Congress and the NCP,” he had said.
While the Sena still holds its neck above water in Pawar’s home state, his prophesy has come to pass in most other states from where several regional parties support the UPA government at the Centre. While the BJP is no option as an ally for these regional players, the reason why Mamata Banerjee is chafing at the bit is because she clearly recognises the fact that in her West Bengal, it is now the Congress and the Trinamool Congress who will be fighting for the spoils. Ditto UP where the Congress, the SP and the BSP are vying for the same vote bank. Bihar will be much the same in case Lalu Prasad Yadav is able to effect his own resurrection but, in any case, with it’s chief minister Nitish Kumar clearly seeing his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi as a liability rather an an asset, that space is pretty much closed up for the Congress. In Andhra Pradesh, too, Chandrababu Naidu will never ally with the BJP again for the same reasons and is a looming challenger to the Congress. Ditto Orissa again a la Bihar.
The only consolation, then, as my Congresssman friend told me, is that none of these regional parties can make it big without the support of either the Congress or the BJP. “If they ally with the latter, it is good for us. But we cannot afford to destroy ourselves again as we did in the Nineties by first allying with Mulayam. We have to throw away the crutches offered by our allies and learn to stand alone, unsupported, on Our own feet again.”
But clear as he is in recognising what needs to be done, even he is not sure that his party is up to the challenge.