(This article was originally published by the Economic Times on 16/12/2018)

“Asli jeet to janta ki hui hai (the real victory is the people’s),” the man out for a morning walk proclaimed. As his group hurried along, he elaborated on the contention: “Politicians should never be given big majorities because thereafter, they do manmaani (take arbitrary decisions).” This perception, despite being indicative of the views of a socio-economic group with the luxury of time for selfcare activities, is certainly subjective. For such persons, India outside the Hindi heartland matter little. The morning walker’s theory, after all, did not factor in Mizoram’s decisive mandate and Telangana’s landslide. He did not even consider Chhattisgarh – where Bharatiya Janata Party was swept away – as significant enough to alter his postulation for its remoteness, small size and limited influence (11 Lok Sabha seats).

One cannot grudge the man his sentiment. Twelve states and a Union Territory, stretching from Jammu & Kashmir to Jharkhand, play a crucial role in determining which party wields political power because the block elects 245 members to the Lok Sabha. The centrality of this region to the verdict of 2019 can be gauged from the fact that in 2014, BJP won a high 196 seats on its own and a spectacular 211 along with allies. In contrast, the divided Opposition split up the remaining 34 seats.

The choice of voters in this cluster of states will determine if BJP comfortably secures another term in office or squeaks in with a reduced majority or fails in the bid altogether.

The question thereby is if the verdict from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan provide clues to the emerging political scenario. It is also pertinent to assess the reasons for Chhattisgarh voting so differently from MP and Rajasthan.

What is it that the Congress managed to do in this small state that it failed in the other two? Or conversely, how did BJP prevent its rival from walking away with a clear mandate in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan while it failed in Chhattisgarh?

The answer for the first question lies in the ease with which Congress mustered a majority in both the states, despite the long drawn see-saw battle on counting day.

While it is true that Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal announced their support to Congress without delay, this was not actually required to touch the magic mark. In both states, Congress secured the required numbers with the backing of independents, aka rebel candidates.

Aspiring leaders contesting elections, often with backing from senior factional leaders, is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to Congress.

But this time, it struck the party severely and contributed immensely to its failure in converting anti-incumbent sentiment against BJP in its favour.

Clearly, Congress failed to build on the swing away from BJP and transform this into a formidable lead. It failed in the effort for chiefly two reasons: First, the party opted to maximise its seats and did not form alliances with BSP, SP or RLD because these parties were also using these elections to demonstrate their presence and leverage this during negotiations for a pact in 2019.

Second, the central leadership of Congress came a cropper in quelling factionalism and subduing aspirations of leaders, telling them interests of the party were paramount.

One can almost hear Narendra Modi ask, in the upcoming parliamentary campaigns, that if it took Congress two days to resolve who would be the chief minister, and eventually settle on a compromise, how can numerous parties with no identified leader select a prime minister? Indeed, Rahul Gandhi failed to demonstrate his authority.

After all, in March, Ashok Gehlot was appointed Congress general secretary and given charge of the organisation and training. His appointment to the key position, crucial for the party for the Lok Sabha polls, was also intended to clear the way for Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan. Yet, in mid-November, Gehlot announced that both he and Pilot would contest the state polls. This not only created a vertical divide within the party’s rank and file, but also left it without a key vertical head in the run-up to 2019.

Obviously, Gehlot remains a satrap at heart and rode roughshod over Gandhi’s decision to back new generation leaders. Independents were propped up in Rajasthan and MP because the chief ministerial choice remained unsettled.

In Rajasthan, several of the 13 independents are past ministers in Gehlot’s ministry and background check of each independent MLA would be revealing.

But Congress is not the only party with homework and the task of recovering lost ground. BJP’s vote share eroded by almost 17% from 2014 levels in Rajasthan, 14% in MP and 16% in Chhattisgarh. Without getting close to the previous level, if not matching those, the party may not be able to touch the tally of 2014 because gains from other regions will not compensate for the losses. The verdict has erased the negative perception about the Opposition but the new Congress chief ministers have to build on this and not commit hara-kiri.

Also, these were state elections and 2019 is likely to be different and Modi would be preparing a fresh script. At the end of this “drawn” match, both the BJP and the Congress have much to do within a limited time. If solutions are not found, the man on the morning walk may well have the last laugh.

Real politik after the battle

(The writer is a political commentator.)



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