The ghastly news from Kashmir did cast a shadow, otherwise Lucknow has had a festive February. The first week was filled with the five-day annual Sanatkada jamboree with fabled Baradari as the festooned focal point. While the mood still lingered, the city found itself riveted on Priyanka Gandhi’s road show with her brother, Congress President Rahul Gandhi in tow.
Those who had expressed doubts about her ability for hard work must have gasped: she interviewed candidates all night. Never mind if many of them did not come out with flying colours: some did not know basic facts about their respective constituencies.
Diplomats, who would normally send their Indian staff to study the local mood, have turned up themselves. While the Congress office at the Mall Avenue is crawling with aspiring netas, Taj Hotel, where both Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia are staying, has enough security to annoy the hotel’s other guests. Has security obstructed Priyanka kicking off the campaign with a dip in the Ganga during Kumbh? Congress choreographers had also floated the idea that a visit to a temple in Srinagar would authenticate her Kashmiri lineage. Who knows, that expedition may still be undertaken.
If arithmetic alone was to determine electoral outcomes, the Samajwadi Party (SP) plus the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) arrangement in Uttar Pradesh is formidable. But the chemistry of their workers at the constituency level has been adversarial.
In India, communal politics is a strategy to manage caste upheaval
True, grassroots workers are grappling with instructions from their leaders to tone down their animosities. But there are other complications, particularly in Akhilesh Yadav’s camp. His uncle, Shivpal Yadav, is not reconciled to Akhilesh’s unbridled control over the SP apparatus. So he has opened his own shop to trade his dwindling clout at the grassroots with anybody eager to damage the BSP-SP alliance.
The BJP is so flushed with funds that it will loosen all its purse strings for Shivpal’s anti-Akhilesh mission. The choice is Shivpal’s: to pocket the money or to waste it.
Meanwhile, Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of SP, is so torn between his son and younger brother that he waffles something in favour of both alternately. In parliament last week, he left Sonia Gandhi, like everyone else, in a state of wonder. Making eye contact with a grinning Narendra Modi he said, “May you come back to power.” The ear-to-ear smile on Mulayam’s face was interpreted by most as a clue to a deep understanding. Mulayam has so far been protected from the Enforcement Directorate.
“We shall not be on the back foot” was Rahul Gandhi’s reaction to the insult heaped on the Congress by SP-BSP distributing nearly all the 80 seats among themselves, leaving two each for the Congress and RLD. He virtually advanced his proprietary claim on UP by announcing that his party would contest all 80 seats.
In making this announcement Rahul fell back once again on a delusion the party has nursed ever since it dropped to 140 seats after the Babari Masjid debacle. It is aching to revive. It is almost impossible for this desire to be fulfilled. A political party waxes and wanes, revives and loses, is up and down alternatively only in a two-party system. In a country with 31 states, each with its own shade of politics, the seesaw model cannot work. The Congress must recognise the reality of a federal India. Otherwise it will continue to reset its target. Let me explain.
For 2019, the declared aim of all parties is to remove the BJP. Mamata Banerjee has grasped the reality. At the meeting called by AAP at Jantar Mantar Road, she said that all regional parties must fight the BJP from their respective states and regions. “The Congress should fight from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh – states where it has shown that it is strong.”
The Congress is uncomfortable being so circumscribed. It will not recover from a hangover of years long past when it was the only political party. In its origins, it represented diverse interests federated behind a programme for freedom. Subsequently, almost every political party came out of the Congress womb. Once Krishna Menon, congressman closest to the communists, and S.K. Patil, far right capitalist, fought the 1957 election on the Congress ticket from different districts of Bombay (Mumbai). In time, disparate interests, glued together, splintered. In 1967, eight Indian states had non-Congress governments. But the Congress remained in power in the centre for a simple reason: its social base remained relatively cohesive. But when in 1990 Mandal Commission report, giving reservations in government jobs to the OBCs whipped up the tempo of caste politics in North India, the Ram Janmbhoomi agitation was dusted up to promote Hindu consolidation. This would minimise the settlement at the lower reaches of the caste pyramid. Hindu consolidation would be best affected by bringing out the “other” in bolder relief. I have always believed that in India, communal politics is a strategy to manage caste upheaval.
The unease in Hindu-Muslim relations since Partition exploded into full blown communalism in the 1990s. It peaked with the demolition of the Babari Masjid on December 6, 1992, the blame for which the minorities placed at the Congress prime minister’s door. The Muslim voter left the Congress en masse. In the 1996 elections, the Congress was down to its lowest Lok Sabha tally ever – 140 seats. It hovered around that figure, leapt to 206 in 2009 (for a range of reasons) and dived to 44 in 2014. Post 9/11 global Islmophobia was a godsend to Hindutva, compelling the Congress into temple hopping and relentless cow worshiping for sheer survival.
There are reasons to believe that the BJP will not be able to repeat its 2014 performance in 2019. The nation is, therefore, headed for two distinct coalitions, facing each other across the aisle. One coalition will be led by the BJP. It is to make sure that it alone leads the other coalition that the Congress is playing risky games in UP, Delhi and to some extent West Bengal. In these states it is either threatening or fighting formations implacably opposed to the BJP.
The writer is a journalist based in India