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How the Congress can win the 2018 elections

December 30, 2017 08:35 IST

'The Congress shall have to take some brave-tough decisions to give a new social face to the party and its leadership composition,' says Mohammad Sajjad.

Rahul Gandhi meets with the families of fishermen affected by Cyclone Ockhi in Kanyakumari, December 14, 2017. Photograph: PTI Photo
IMAGE: Rahul Gandhi meets with the families of fishermen affected by Cyclone Ockhi in Kanyakumari, December 14, 2017. Photograph: PTI Photo

There are certain crucial issues that have emerged from the Gujarat assembly election verdict which remained, at best, under-reported, hence relatively less known.

There were institutional subversions even before filing the nominations could be filed.

The Election Commission announced the dates for the concurrently occurring Himachal Pradesh election, but chose to delay the announcement of the schedule for the Gujarat election.

It appeared to have become partisan towards the party in power, putting the Election Commission and its autonomy in the dock. As it emerged, this delay allowed the Union government to announce many sops for Gujarat, specifically for the urban segments where the Bharatiya Janata Party eventually performed much better in the election.

 

The prime minister of India put the winter session of Parliament on hold as he and his ministers plunged into the election campaign. Instances of wilful institutional weaknesses did not stop there.

During the course of the campaign, the prime minister accused his predecessor along with others who had held very high offices of the Union previously, of conniving with an enemy nation against the incumbent PM as well as to defeat his party in the province.

It raises very serious question: An accusation of high treason against a former PM is made public retrospectively at a public meeting. Why did the PM remain silent on such a grave issue of national security for so long?

Why did not he take appropriate legal action against those he made accusations?

Why does not he produce prima facie evidence to this effect?

All these issues need to be taken care of by the political parties in the fray as well as by civil society, particularly when more provinces are about to go to the polls in the next few months: Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan.

All these provinces have a bipolar polity (the Congress on one pole, the BJP on another). In Karnataka, the Congress has to fight incumbency. In the three other provinces the BJP has to fight incumbency.

Just as there was visible rural discontent against the ruling BJP in Gujarat, the ruling Congress is facing massive peasant discontent in Karnataka. This, despite the fact that the Congress government has waived peasants' loans up to Rs 50,000.

Let it be recalled that coastal Karnataka, often referred to as the 'laboratory of Hindutva' in south India, has been witnessing communal polarisation since 2013 to the extent that even a tiny scuffle or a minor road accident has the potential to snowball into a riot.

In Gujarat, the Congress has been out of power for 22 years. It reached out to forge alliances with three young leaders belonging to three distinct social groups, and also aligned with a tribal party.

It also practised almost a politics of untouchability against the Muslims in order to avoid anti-Muslim polarisation. Yet, it was given a mandate only to sit in the Opposition. The Congress lost as many as 16 seats with very low margins -- a few hundred to 3,000 votes.

These were the seats where NOTA, the NCP and BSP secured as many votes to keep the Congress away from power. It points out the pathology in Gujarat about the Congress.

The party has historically been extremely reluctant about forging alliance with smaller parties if it is the dominant pole in a bipolar polity.

In the 1937 and 1946 elections the Congress did so; in the 'post-Congress era' -- since the 1990s -- it has almost invariably been doing so -- arrogant and reluctant against forging prudent coalitions.

This is unlike the BJP, whose rise to power is a story of coalitions, not only in the Vajpayee era but also in the era of NaMo hegemony. In Uttar Pradesh this year, it forged alliances with smaller outfits like the Suheldeo Party and swept the biggest province in March.

This is the most significant point to be driven home to the Congress and to every other party opposed to the BJP.

Is the Congress prepared to throw a leader (a chief ministerial face) in each of the provinces going to the polls?

Is it going to co-opt leaders from various social groups in those provinces?

Will it align with smaller outfits in those provinces? Offering the posts of deputy chief ministers and other such tangible offers could be of help to it.

The Congress also needs to realise the fact that the majority community, nowhere in the world, needs electoral symbolism; hence, the ridiculous politics of temple hopping and janeu demonstration, will be of no help.

Such symbolism and tokenism work only for the minorities and the vulnerable segments who are desperate to be counted.

Rahul may be misled by his advisors that out of 22 temples he visited in Gujarat, at least 18 of those seats were won by the Congress. He must be wise and visionary enough to see through such statistical trappings.

The strength of the Congress is its history and conviction for plurality, rather than for majoritarianism.

At this historical juncture, the Congress needs to learn from the US where lines are clearly drawn between the Republicans and the Democrats, as to which of the social groups and classes will form the core of its policy preferences, and leadership.

The urban rich, upper middle classes of the majority community, big businesses, trading communities, etc, have gone over to its competitor, the BJP.

The Congress may look up to the Dalit-Bahujans of various denominations, the lower OBCs, and the tribes, not only in terms of delivering certain welfare measures when in power, but also in terms of taking them into the leadership, and the organisational structures.

The Congress shall have to take some brave-tough decisions to give a new social face to the party and its leadership composition.

Various columnists/reporters have been informing the nation in this regard. Ajaz Ashraf (Scroll.in, December 18, 2017) has said that by February, the BJP will split the OBC reservation of 27% into three layers: 9% for each layer. This way, it will enlist the support of the OBCs.

One may surmise the BJP would consider splitting the Dalits and tribes also into such layered groupings.

By the end of 2018, the Ayodhya issue may help the BJP polarise the scenario just before the general election.

Indian democracy is face to face with many dangers where its plural co-existence is gravely threatened by the rising assertion of majoritarian reaction.

Professor Mohammad Sajjad is at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University; he has published Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours(Routledge, 2014) and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857 (Primus, 2014).

Mohammad Sajjad