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Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Too soon for obituaries, or naming a crown prince | John Dayal

Friday 11 March 2022, by John Dayal

There is a grassroots saying in the bundocks of North India, criminally casteist in its original Hindi, which could be translated into politically correct English as “Don’t write anyone off till their death anniversary has been observed.”

It will, therefore, be too early to write the obituary of either the Indian National Congress or the Bahujan Samaj Party which are the two well-known political parties which have been the worst losers from more than one state in the just concluded elections to five state assemblies.

Equally early is any forecast that the 2024 or 2029 General elections will see Aam Admi Party founder president Arvind Kejriwal joust for national leadership with Uttar Pradesh chief minister and BJP leader Yogi Adityanath.

The yogi, head of a major Hindu sect mutt was once known as Ajay Kumar Bhisht, born in what is now Uttarakhand. With some help from prime minister Narendra Modi, he retains power in his state, albeit with fewer seats than the record the party had in the elections five years ago.

Five years is a very long time in Indian politics, as leaders of all well-known partis in the fry on the 2022 state elections ill acknowledge.

Other than AAP in Punjab, vote percentages of the losers have plummeted, and even the winning BJP in UP has again failed to win a majority of the popular votes cast. BJP votes crept up to 41. 4 percent from 39.6 % it had in its record 312 seats in 2017. Trailing far behind in seats, Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party won 32 % of the votes.

For the Yogi, there is also little solace in the fact that the first three of the total of five rounds of voting went largely in favour of Yadav who the BJP had deposed in 2017.

The BJP swept the fourth and fifth round of polling in the eastern districts of the state after a campaign at war-pitch by prime minister Narendra Modi. He proved once again he is the best general of election campaigns in the country since the late Indira Gandhi.

Mr Modi pitched his tent in Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency, to ensure the party morale was kept at a high level after the slack in the western districts of the state where angry farmers had held sway and had supported the Samajwadi party.

Not surprising that spokespersons of the BJP have been in a great hurry to announce the 2024 general elections will be fought under the redoubtable leadership of Mr. Modi. The Rashtriya Swam Sewak Sangh finds a subtle mention in a commitment to nationalism

Fortunately for Yogi, there are no signs yet that Akhilesh, banking still on the filial support of the Yadav community and possibly of the harried Muslims, will or can foray outside the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Neighbouring Bihar has a strong Yadav leader in Tejaswani Yadav, the son of the iconic OBC leader Laloo Yadav. Haryana’s Jats may have backed him in western UP to an extent but prefer their own leaders in their state. That goes also for the Jat Sikhs of Punjab.

Akhilesh has not yet worked on a national image, or a national agenda unless he is accepted by a wider coalition of regional parties. A UP victory would have helped. But the Australia-trained engineer has won succession wars within his clan and is good at making friends and influencing people.

If only he could win over competing backward castes. This has been a bridge too far for him, and one which the BJP has exploited to the hilt in wooing the smaller non-Yadav backward groups who had felt neglected in the long rule of the Yadavs after the rout of the Congress in the state in the last century.

AAP’s Kejriwal after 2022 does score over Akhilesh, even though his reputation still remains that of the person specialising in bashing the Congress out of existence wherever he can.

In Delhi, he ousted the multiple term Congress chief minister Sheila Dikshit, the maker of modern Delhi with its Metro, flyovers and stadia.

But he could not displace the BJP from the three municipal corporations which they continue to control.

However, of all state chief ministers, he remains the only one to have scored, and scored well, in other states.

In his second attempt in Punjab, he is forming the new government. And in Distant Goa, he did win 2 seats. Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress had trounced the BJP in Bengal’s legislative elections last year, too tested the waters in Goa. It did not win a single seat.

Goa chose to remain with the BJP which won 20 of the 40 seats. It had drummed up a majority last time buying up several legislators from the Congress which has won a majority of the seats. The BJP gave 8 seats to Catholics this time and saw five of them win. The persecution of Christians in Karnataka and in ither states, seemed not to have mattered at all.

What then is the secret of Kejriwal’s success in Punjab where his party took off like a missile from the 20 seats it had to a whopping 92 of the 117 it contested. The ruling Congress could save only 18 seats under its Dalit chief minister and a set of warring state leaders.

Everyone else was humiliated. Capt. Amarendra Singh, once chief minister, and a former prince of Patiala, who had left the Congress to form his own party Punjab Lok Party in collation with the BJP, lost every one of the 28 seats the BJP gave him.

The BJP itself won only 2 seats of 117 contested, despite its base in the urban non-Sikh business communities. The Badals of the Shiromani Akali Dal salvaged just three from the 97 seat they contested, and their ally Bahujan Samaj Party scored in a single of the 20 places it set up candidates.

AAP soaked up the votes of the Congress and the Akalis. The angry big farmers who has agitated for a year over the BJP’s farm laws, did not vote for the Dalit face of the Congress. They also would not vote for the Badals who were till well into the agitation sitting in alliance in Parament with the BJP.

AAP makes no pretence of its ideology even as it confidently sells its promise of improving education and health services, as it has done to an extent in Delhi. The free bus and metro rides for women and such like are not very much a lure in rural India.

The ideology Mr Kejriwal mouths is not far from Mr Modi’s oratory. Hindu gods figure large, as do pilgrimages to every known Hindu holy town or river. That is visible in Delhi’s schools as much as the seventy or more massive Tricolour on tall steel masts.

He does have something the Congress has lost – an army of volunteers and a committed cadre very loyal to him, and to him alone.

His confidence is to be seen. In a country where every chief minister keeps the most crucial ministries to himself, reluctantly giving some others to faction leaders, Kejriwal despite being chief minister in Delhi has left it to his deputy Mr Sisodia to run the government on a day to day basis.

An engineer, he once swore by meritocracy. He once led the movement against reservations in education and jobs for scheduled castes. He has now put his faith in professionals such as himself to run education, water, electricity, and human resource development.

AAP, as he has built it, still has little appeal outside urban areas. Punjab will remain an aberration for the next five years even as the Akali Dal rebuilding itself.

So, what about the Congress. Is there a critical mass left of its anywhere in the country – and that includes Rajasthan where it is still ruling on its own. And Maharashtra where it is a junior partner in a multi group coalition – to set in process a revival?

Punjab remains its best bet in the next five years if it can find more new leaders to replace cricketer Navjot Sidhu as party president, and counter the big moneybags on whom Captain Amrendra Singh may possibly have some hold, remains to be seen.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress vote has dropped to 2.4% in the state, its lowest in the state for decades and down from 6.5% in 2017. It could a shameful two seats against the seven it won in the 2017.

Its real loss has been the total exodus, or betrayal, of its powerful state leaders including RPN Singh, Lalitesh Tripathi, Jitin Prasada, and Imran Masood who left in 2017.

Each one of them also represented a particular caste, and was what Mr Modi calls, member of a feudal dynamically. Ironically, all of them joined the BJP.

Seat counts are a handy, but imperfect method of gauging the future of a political party, even though it is the only legally accepted method of government formation.

Vote share is more relevant, both in a state and nationally across political geographies. That works against Mamata Banerjee as she is not a player in most states.

The most important is the strengthening of the political machinery, the election apparatus across the states. AAP, better with money, beginning from scratch, worked on that very well.

Mamata and the chief ministers of the Andhra states inherited the system when they broke away from the Congress lock stock and barrel. This was also true of Sharad Pawar and several others.

Will the brother and sister duo of Priyanka Gandhi be able to revive the grassroots structures, that corps of volunteers that is needed in election time and enthuse them with some quality leadership? It is still a moot question.

Perhaps they need to split up the leadership, one focussing on the electoral battle and the other on infrastructure, cadre building, rethinking economic and social policies.

It will not do for the Congress to be all things to all people across contradictory lines. It cannot be currying favour with those who believe in religion based nationalism while also speaking of a secular umbrella for the many diverse religions, castes, social strata, women, Dalits, Adivasis and the landless.

Barring the BJP are present if we ignore the publics with the RSS, every other party has a single dynastic leader. Will they be able to survive a transition?

In Punjab, the Akalis have done it once because the founder abdicated the thrown and he son was crowned in his prime. Akhilesh Yadav had a fight a battle at par with any in mythology with his uncles. Stalin in Tamil Nadu fought off his brother, before being made the state’s crown prince.

Will these state entities fight off the BJP on their own? And if they do, will they automatically segue onto a national level organic coalition when it comes to closing a prime minister? Historical experience has been sad, as seen first with the Janata party in 1977-80, and then after the Narasimha Rao rule.

The Congress will have to reinvent itself in each one of the thirty states and union territories, competing in contests with the regional satraps and the BJP, or AAP, if it wants to regain its title of a national party. It will have go be the sum of its local parts.

Can this happen without any of the dynasty providing the moral and structural glue, and as important, the nurture to new grassroots, districts and state leaders is he question before Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi and their well-wishers – the few who still may exist.

(A version of this also published in Indian Currents weekly)

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