Politics is not acrobatics of the abacus. It is a stilted contest between perception and performance. When lies prevail, perception gets more credibility than performance. Has Congress President Rahul Gandhi acquired the enhanced status of a warrior with enough mojo to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Has the Assembly poll megillah smoked Modi’s magic substantially? Perception says the Congress is back. After having lost almost a dozen states since 2014, which it had held by itself or with allies, the party’s triumphant return in sections of the cow belt has, definitely, reversed its sinking fortunes. Perception also indicates Rahul’s growing political credibility and acceptability.
Does the verdict indicate a dent in Modi’s invincibility quotient and the fallibility of BJP Chief Amit Shah’s electoral management model? In reality, it is a given that Modi can and will influence the Lok Sabha election outcome next year. He is still the most visible and untainted national leader we have.
In India, it’s not the parties that win or lose elections. Individuals become heroes or fall guys. Hence, the analytical narrative suggests that though the Congress scored a marginal victory over the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and decisively in Chhattisgarh, it was Rahul’s effective leadership that won the day.
The voting mosaic in the five states does not give a clear picture of the future of the two national parties and their top leadership. For now, it’s a draw with Advantage Congress. The party, which had been geographically shrunk, did regain some of its presence in central-north India. So far, the political CMYK of India’s administrative cartography was dominated by saffron. Now it has been replaced with the Congress tricolour. Though the Grand Old Party bagged power in Karnataka through its alliance with Janata Dal (Secular) it couldn’t make an impact in states where regional satraps are in command. For example, Telangana refused to be mesmerized by Modi’s charisma and the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery. It rejected Rahul’s persuasively polite campaign seeking votes for the Congress. Even in tiny Mizoram, neither the Congress president nor the prime minister could move the mood of the local population. By default, the BJP has indeed ensured a Congress-mukt north-east unlike a decade ago.
An analysis reveals the BJP’s performance has been better than what is projected. Though it was mauled in Chhattisgarh, it was only bruised in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. It also prevented the Congress from winning an absolute majority in both the states. Significantly, the BJP was facing triple anti-incumbency. It was taunted by multiple drawbacks: anger against numerous sitting MLAs, dissatisfaction with the state government and disappointment towards the Centre. It couldn’t explain the deficiencies in governance and the delivery of relief to farmers. It had no logical explanation for the lack of fresh employment opportunities. Still buoyed by the UP euphoria in March 2017, it ignored the miseries of mismanagement caused by sudden demonetization. Some of its debacles were caused by local factors and internal feuds instead of purely the Central leadership’s failure to gauge the impact of its policies on farmers, the middle class and small-scale entrepreneurs. Yet, Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Chouhan could bring his party almost to the door of victory with 108 seats. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje diluted the anti-incumbency feeling using her own brand of social engineering that snatched the privilege of an absolute majority from the Congress. True, BJP lost both states, but the Congress didn’t win them totally either. It had to borrow support from outsiders.
On the credit side, the Congress won the battle of perception that Rahul lacked the charisma and charm to woo voters and that the party is bereft of a slogan and an ideology. On the debit side, none of the leaders who populated its ranks in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan posed a credible threat to Chouhan or Raje. The Congress was virtually at war with itself since its factional leaders had put up proxy rebel contenders against official candidates. But in spite of all this stressfest, the party dethroned its relatively united and resources-loaded foe thanks to the BJP’s inability to detect the desertion of committed voters. One of the chief ministerial candidates jubilantly quipped, “BJP polled fewer votes than the number of its registered numbers in the state because most of them voted for us”. Is the Congress getting a lead role in the replay of the saga that catapulted the BJP to the catbird seat? The saffron slogan this time was “Ab Paanch Pradesh, Phir Poora desh”. (Only five states for now to win the entire country later). In 2018 as of now, the BJP rules over two-thirds of India’s states. The Congress leadership is now raising a similar slogan “Ab paanch Pradesh, 2019 mein poora desh”. (We now have five states and will rule entire India in 2019.) At present, Punjab, Pudducherry, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are Congress palatines.
The BJP should be worried that its sworn enemy has demolished the perception that the middle classes, upper castes, Dalits, Backwards and minorities had deserted the Congress over the past decade. However, social profiling of Congress voters in four states reveals that the party has partially regained its rainbow character. In the three states in its control, it got the votes of traditional BJP supporters such as traders and upper castes. For example, a Muslim Congress candidate defeated a three-term BJP candidate in an urban Jaipur constituency with a predominately Hindu population. Rahul has also exploded another perception, that the Gandhi DNA doesn’t necessarily infuse leadership qualities.
Last weekend, with the active aid and advice of his mother and sister, the Congress president demonstrated that he can keep his party of old and young together. It took him more than 48 hours to choose the three chief ministers. But he scored an optical victory by tweeting two photographs showing him all smiles and flanked by the old guard and GenNext. One showed Ashok Gehlot, 67, on his right and Sachin Pilot, 41, on his left with the caption “United Colours of Rajasthan”. A previous tweet showed Jyotiraditya Scindia, 47, on his right and Kamal Nath, 72, on his left, and a quote from Leo Tolstoy which read, “Most powerful warriors are patience and time”. Rahul had earlier sent out a survey to the cadres to choose the CMs. Though it was he who finally anointed the chief ministers, the memo said he was a Gandhi of a different shade and shape. But perception lasts only if it matches with
performance. The political auguries are yet to reveal whether Rahul’s performance has the moxie to erase the perception that Modi is mightier than him.
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