The headlines of the just concluded assembly elections in the four states from the North-East corner to Southern most India is this: The Congress continues to contract in its traditional strongholds and the BJP is continually expanding to fill the gap. Look at the numbers that emerge from the polls and what they conceal or reveal. In the 2016 Assam polls, the BJP contested 91 seats and won 60, at a success rate of 66 per cent. It polled 29.5 per cent of votes against 12 per cent five years back. The Congress, contesting all 126 seats, got 24 and polled 31 per cent of votes against 78 seats and 39.4 per cent of votes it got in 2011. As the Congress contracted by 8.4 per cent in five years, the BJP expanded by 17.5 per cent. The BJP took the balance votes from two regional players, Assam Gana Parishad and Bodoland People”s Front, gaining the votes the Congress had lost earlier to the two regional players.
In Bengal, the BJP’s vote share of 10.2 per cent in the 2016 Assembly polls is not far too low as compared to the Congress vote share of 12.3 per cent — even though, with the Congress fighting in alliance with the Left, it is not an apple to apple comparison. The Congress which went alone in 2006 got a vote share of 16.7 per cent, when the BJP got 2 per cent of votes. Now the BJP share has risen to 10 per cent plus. After 2006, the Congress has not contested any election on its own in Bengal. It had allied with Mamta’s TMC in 2011, and with the CPM now. Thanks to TMC, it won 42 out of the 66 seats it had contested in 2011, and 44, out of 90 now, thanks to Marxists. No one can deny that the BJP has now firmly entered Bengal. And its penetration of the South, which commenced with Karnataka first in 1990s, has now extended to Kerala where along with its allies it has posted a vote share of 14.4 per cent — a significant number for a third player in the game.
The shift from Congress and the regional players to BJP in Assam, Bengal and Kerala is not anecdotal. Unless a common thought is driving the expansion of the BJP in highly diverse geographies and demographies, it just cannot happen. Over the last 25 years, the BJP has been gradually taking the place of Congress as the national alternative to regional players in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, which account for a quarter of the Lok Sabha seats. It has gained from the regional players also.
The Congress, reduced to the margins in UP and Bihar, occupies the third spot in Jharkhand below the local party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. Intensifying this trend, the BJP single-handedly, and stunningly, defeated the Congress in the Haryana assembly election winning 47 out of the total 90 seats. Displacing the Congress, it became the first national alternative to the state players in Haryana which included the Indian National Lok Dal. The BJP’s vote share rose to 33.2 per cent while the Congress was reduced to the third position in seats (15) and vote share (20.6 per cent) behind the INLD led by Om Prakash Chautala who is serving a 10-year jail term. Again, in the 2014 Assembly elections in the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP moved ahead of the Congress and won 25 seats and 23 per cent of votes against its 2008 tally of 11 seats and 15.2 per cent of votes. The Congress which got 17 seats and 20 per cent of votes in 2008, declined to 12 seats and 18 per cent of votes in 2014.
Another factor. The poor strike rate of the Congress as alliance partner is not adequately noticed. In the 2016 assembly polls the Congress had allied with the Muslim League in Kerala, the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Left Front in Bengal. While the number of seats the Congress has won in these states is due to the strength of its alliance partners, its strike rate is far lower than that of its alliance partners. The DMK contested 179 seats and won 89 — with a success rate of 50 per cent. But the Congress contested 41 seats and won just 8 — a strike rate less than one-fifth, just 40 per cent of the DMK’s. Had the Congress achieved the DMK strike rate, the alliance would have notched 108 seats, just 10 short of majority in the Assembly. That would have robbed the shine of the AIADMK’s win.
The Congress fared worse in Kerala. The Muslim League, the main Congress ally, contested 24 seats and won 18 of them — at a high strike rate of 75 per cent. But contesting 87 seats the Congress won just 22 — at a depressing success rate of 25 per cent — a third of the League’s. At the League’s rate, the Congress would have got 66 seats, and that would have meant the defeat of LDF and UDF retaining power. What is the implication? The people seem to prefer the allies of the Congress, but not the Congress. Is not the Congress then less attractive to voters than its allies?
In Bengal assembly elections now, if the Congress strike rate is better than that of its main ally, the CPM, it is because the latter has fared worse. While the CPM contested 150 seats and won just 26 at a strike rate of 16 per cent, the Congress had contested 90 seats and won 44 — at a success rate of 50 per cent. But, when the Congress had contested in alliance with TMC in 2011, TMC’s success rate was 81 per cent, but the strike rate of the Congress was 66 per cent — a fifth lower than TMC’s. CPM’s poor show now makes the Congress look better. While the CPM should kick itself, the Congress cannot pat itself.
Why this shift away from the grand old party which inherited the power and prestige of the national movement for freedom? It is not just an arithmetical shift. The reason for the shift is not unfathomable. The post-Nehruvian Congress came to be perceived by many as less and less the heir of the pre-Independence Congress. Under the thumb of the Nehru clan from the late 1950s, the Congress turned less nationalist, less democratic, and more sectarian. It increasingly began looking at immediate benefits of political arithmetic at the cost of the enduring spirit of India. In the name of fake secularism it disowned all that its forefathers had held dear in pre independence days — the ideal of Ram Rajya held out by Mahatma Gandhi, the lofty spiritual nationalism expounded by Swami Vivekananda, the spirit of Banchimchandra’s Vande Mataram and the high ideal of Sanatana Dharma that Maharishi Aurobindo equated to Indian nationalism.
These profound thoughts, not the fake secularism now dominating the political discourse, inspired the people to sacrifice for the nation’s freedom.
But, the Congress shredded these high icons of national spirit in exchange for the vote-catching tactics in post-Independence politics. And worse still, the Nehru family, which got on to the short-sighted political escalator of minority vote-bank politics, began branding all such inspiring thoughts and icons as sectarian and anti-secular. That is where the BJP challenged the Congress through the Ayodhya movement and moved in to occupy the nationalist philosophic vacuum left behind by the Congress. In the year 1995, the Supreme Court vindicated the BJP’s foundation rooted in the inclusive Hindu values which, the Court said, was only the restatement of the spirit of the Indian freedom movement and the ethos of India.
The shift away from the Congress to the BJP, which began then and is intensifying now, shows the rising reverence in the contemporary national mind for the icons and values of India’s independence movement now seen as represented less and less by the Congress and more and more by the BJP. This process, a historic one, seems to be reviving the pre-Independence Congress spirit and philosophy in national polity through BJP’s emergence.
The shift calls for more than electoral and statistical analysis to understand its depth, even though election results do indicate its scale and reach. Now the BJP too needs to convince the people of India that its philosophy and programme wholly align with the spirit and icons of the freedom movement which the Congress has discarded. The BJP needs to use the idioms of the freedom movement to re-articulate its position. It will do well to read Gandhiji’s ideas of minority assimilation expounded by him in Hind Swaraj, which the Congress forsook first and opposed later. It must also read what Jawaharlal Nehru told the Aligarh University students and faculty in 1948 on how they must feel about India of which the Sonia-led Congress may not even be aware. Will the BJP do what the Congress men and women have failed to do even as it fast fills the Congress space, so that it does not fail the nation like the Congress?
Congress chose political arithmetic over spirit of India
Under the thumb of the Nehru clan from the late 1950s, the Congress turned less nationalist, less democratic, and more sectarian. It increasingly began looking at immediate benefits of political arithmetic at the cost of the enduring spirit of India
BJP has slowly taken place of Congress
Over the last 25 years, the BJP has been gradually taking the place of Congress as the national alternative to regional players in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, which account for a quarter of the Lok Sabha seats. It has gained from the regional players also
S gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on economic and political affairs