BJP juggernaut rolls on but events in Karnataka and Gujarat show they are not invincible
As the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) swiftly picks up state after state, the Indian National Congress response has been fear and panic. Bihar slipped away from the Congress despite having, according to Rahul Gandhi, prior knowledge of Nitish Kumar’s defection. If they knew, why were they helpless? Why the ‘grand alliance’, which is a brain child of Rahul Gandhi, was left on the mercy of scam tainted Lalu Prasad Yadav and his son Tejashwi Yadav? Why Sonia Gandhi didn’t intervene into the matter even though Nitish Kumar asked to intervene and convince Lalu Prasad Yadav and his son Tejashwi Yadav to come with proper explanation in regard to the charges labeled against them? It is difficult to understand.
Goa went similarly and though Congress was better placed there, having won more seats, it waited to form the government rather being first to contact the possible support which was shun away by the BJP overnight. Ironically, waiting while facing a party with the talent, energy and hunger of the BJP, turned out a fatal error for the grand old party.
In Gujarat, the exit of Shankarsinh Vaghela has triggered another round of chaos: Six Congress MLAs have quit, jeopardizing Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha election. As the BJP swiftly picks up state after state, the Congress response has been fear and panic.
The party response has been to suspect all its remaining MLAs and send them to Karnataka, one of the few states it controls. The strange thing is that Gujarat is a state where the BJP has performed really poorly, according to Gujaratis and it is the BJP that should be concerned about losing its popularity.
In the last couple of years, Gujarat has seen the following major agitations under which lakhs of people have been mobilised: The Patidar agitation for reservations led by Hardik Patel, the counter agitation of OBC Kshatriyas led by Alpesh Thakor, the Dalit revolt after the Una episode led by Jignesh Mewani, the anguish of diamond merchants and textile workers after demonetisation and rallies by lakhs of traders in Surat after the imposition of GST.
Though these issues have been the direct result of BJP policies, all these agitations have happened without Congress leadership. They have thrown up new leaders such as the three young men above, or they have been leaderless. This shows that the Congress has forgotten how to mobilise people on political issues. This is strange because some of Gandhi’s most successful agitations, like the Bardoli Satyagraha, were in Gujarat.
The Congress party in Gujarat has consistently got over 30 percent of the vote. However it cannot get that extra three or four percentage points that is the crucial difference between victory and defeat. And that can happen if it is able to capitalise on one of the issues by mobilising people around it. Its inability to mobilise despite all the agitations is the reason the Gujarat BJP remains comfortable.
The BJP is thought to be invincible but no party can be in democratic politics. In Karnataka, the BJP is actually on the defensive. The wily Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah has used Indian-style political tactics to keep the Hindutva party busy. He is using an anti-Hindi agitation in Bangalore, a subject on which BJP is vulnerable because of the RSS preference for Hindi. The local BJP must stay silent or suffer damage.
The other issue is that of the Lingayat community’s internal demand that it be treated as a separate religion outside Hinduism. Siddaramaiah has offered to send a recommendation of separation of the faith to the Centre, if the Lingayats want him to. This seemingly innocent offer has set the cat among the pigeons. The problem the BJP faces is that the community strongly backs the BJP (party leader BS Yeddyurappa is a Lingayat) but the BJP-RSS will not give Lingayat separatism legitimacy. Once again, the BJP must remain silent or suffer damage.
Siddaramaiah has also disarmed the BJP’s nationalism by turning the focus to sub-nationalism: A flag for Karnataka. All of this tells us that it is possible for Congress, and other parties, to offer a political challenge to the BJP.
How can political parties in India mobilise their supporters in a time of trouble? The Congress might be about to receive a lesson from one of India’s sharpest politicians. Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati has resigned from the Rajya Sabha after claiming she was not allowed to speak. Whether her anger is real or not, the action is deliberate. She will go to the ground and try to build back the support she lost.
According to those who follow local politics, the BJP succeeded in breaking up the unified Dalit identity into jatis and sub-castes and pursuing Dalit groups Mayawati ignored. Her party has been getting about 20 to 25 percent of the vote in Uttar Pradesh.
In a multiple cornered fight so long as all parties were in that zone she had a reasonable chance of victory. But Amit Shah’s superb ability to build caste alliances has given the BJP overwhelming numbers that neither the Samajwadi Party (which is stuck at 29 percent of the vote) nor the BSP can match.
The only way to change that is to mobilise people. Mayawati knows that. The Congress, after this moment of panic has passed, should take a deep breath and think about how to go forward.