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How will the Congress counter Modi's game plan?

Last updated on: June 12, 2013 16:48 IST

Narendra ModiThe Congress’s real test would be to stop Modi and the BJP from achieving this short term objective of winning the forthcoming assembly elections so that they remain relevant when the parliament elections take place in 2014. They may be helped by the growing trend amongst regional parties to stay out of any alliance with any national party, says Sanjay Kapoor.

Long before Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was officially anointed as the chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign committee during the party’s national executive in Goa, his name was being tested by some of his supporters as the probable party candidate for the prestigious parliamentary seat of Lucknow.

But why of all the places Lucknow? His supporters displayed no coyness in giving an explanation at to why Modi should be fielded from the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

Their explanation has been on the following lines: Besides Lucknow enjoying a reputation of being secular, the city has been represented by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A victory from a constituency that has such strong secular credentials and manifest symbolism was expected to neutralise his post-Godhra riots image. More importantly, though, Modi’s presence in UP could unleash a wave in favour of the BJP and help the party win a significant number of seats from the state.

Although a firm announcement has not been made about Modi's probable but interesting shift from the comfort of his home state of Gujarat to caste-ridden Uttar Pradesh, the Congress and other regional parties are taking such reports very seriously. They recognise the buzz the Gujarat chief minister’s muscular politics is causing in urban and semi-urban areas of the state and are realistically trying to assess its electoral implications.

The BJP wants to win 40 seats or more from UP to give it a realistic shot at getting 180 plus seats to come close to forming the government at the Centre. On the face it is an impossible task as the party has been on a secular decline, their noise levels have not squared with the support on the ground. In the 2009 parliamentary elections they stood at the fourth position after the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

To correct such a depressing performance in UP, the BJP is slowly unpacking its electoral strategy. The appointment of Amit Shah as incharge of the state clearly indicates that Modi would like to keep a tight control over the choice of candidates and the campaign. During a recent trip to UP, this writer found number of posters, banners and hoardings welcoming Shah’s appointment.

“The BJP has sensed the positive mood in favour of Modi and the party and they do not want to squander this opportunity that has presented itself after nine years,” says a left leader. According to him, the BJP has been helped by the low intensity communal riots that have been taking place in UP for many months.

The Samajwadi Party government has not really tried very hard to stop them. Critics allege that government is not taking stern action because violence consolidates votes and the SP hopes to benefit -- as does the BJP -- due to these riots as it is supposed to squeeze out both the Congress and the BSP in the process.

Despite the Modi juggernaut being celebrated by the media in glowing terms, Congress leaders do not think it will be so easy for the BJP to get even 150 seats. Besides being geographically limited, Karnataka has shown that the BJP’s base is not as ideological as it is made out to be. It gets hurt by splits and the destruction of social coalition as it happens in the case of Congress or any other party.

For long a fiction had been peddled that the party that gets hurt the least by splits is the BJP. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were given as examples of this shaky thesis. The Congress managed to storm back to power in Karnataka after the BJP split three ways leading to its vote plummeting by 20 percent. The Congress’s vote barely increased by 1.5 percent.

Karnataka holds important lessons for the Congress, that it is possible for a party to win if it can hang on to its social coalition and also have political alliances with regional parties. “All is not lost for the Congress. We may be looking miserable sitting in Delhi due to all the corruption scandals blamed on us, but election results can surprise many if we get a few things right,” says a senior Congress leader.

Getting a few things right for the Congress would mean sorting out the mess in Andhra Pradesh, and finding an alliance partner in Tamil Nadu. At the moment, the Congress strategy in both these important states looks in tatters. The Congress got 33 seats from AP and also had the benefit of major support from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition in Tamil N0adu. Most optimistic estimates from AP give the Congress barely three-five seats. The Congress, in the absence of an ally, could draw a big blank from Tamil Nadu. AP could be fixed, if the Congress leadership is to be believed.

There is a proposal to remove Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, a political lightweight, and replace him with former Chief Minister Chenna Reddy’s son, Shashi Reddy, who heads the National Disaster Management Authority in Delhi. The argument is that by appointing someone from Telangana would take the wind out of the movement.

Reddy may be a good man, but it would be expecting too much from him to neuter a movement that has been raging for so long and has taken so many lives. The Congress leadership also believes in the fact that the jailed leader of YSR Congress would eventually come around to supporting the Congress -- even in a post-poll scenario.

The BJP has smelt an opportunity in AP and Modi plans to hold a massive rally in Hyderabad to build on his growing support base. Some disgruntled Congress MPs are also in talks with the BJP leadership and they may join the party during the rally. The BJP might also announce its support to the formation of Telangana to sow further confusion in the minds of Telangana Rashtriya Samithi, which has many members from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in important positions. What this means is that the Congress has a very small window in fixing AP before regional outfits in that state look at the BJP.

In Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha has made it clear that the All India Anna DMK will contest all the seats. After breaking its alliance with the Congress, the DMK has not revealed its mind about which way it will go. Traditionally, any Dravidian party manages to edge out the other when it has an alliance with the Congress.

In recent times, the Congress has looked emaciated and clueless. It is hoping that the DMK will eventually ally with it, but is also stared at by the prospects of going it alone with the likes of Vijayakanth and a few smaller parties. Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s dream to have the party fight elections alone from the southern state may happen quite by chance. Without an ally, the Congress’s prospects look very dismal.

Congress leaders think that the emergence of Modi will bring about a major shake-up in the way regional parties and people countenance national parties. Parties like the Janata Dal-United may part ways from the BJP if they continue to find Modi’s rise uncomfortable, but a party like Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal may align with the Congress. Bihar may witness new political permutations as social constituencies force political parties to respond to fast changing realities.

The Congress leadership, based on dubious surveys, believes that minorities would rally around all over the country to stop the BJP from coming to power. They think that 2004 election results would repeat itself in terms of how Muslim vote returned to Congress in a big way leave BJP a close second. For the sake of record, BJP from a high of 24 percent in 1999 had slipped to 18 odd percent vote in 2009. 

The Congress party believes that the support of the minorities would be a big plus for them all over the country. These expectations are flawed and simplistic and do little credit to those who have been strategising for the party for so many years. The truth is that the minorities seldom vote in isolation and like to ride on some other castes or social constituencies for reason of protection as well from a simple desire to be on the winning side.

No caste or community likes to be on the losing side as it has terrible implications on the ground. And these are worse for the minorities, poor and marginalised. Traditionally, these were the bedrock of the Congress’s support, but its economic and social policies had alienated them. 2009 elections had proved to the Congress party that they could fight anti-incumbency by initiating policies that give money directly in the hands of the people.

If in 2009 it was NAREGA and loan waiver scheme then this time around they are hoping that food security bill, direct cash transfer can do the magic for them. Congress won 22 seats from UP when no one really expected it.  All their political alliances plus their attempts to project Rahul Gandhi as the counterpoint to Modi would depend on what they can tell the masses in terms of how they have made their lives better. Congress leaders believe that harping on corruption and governance issues does not make much difference when money has reached the marginalised and they feel that life is not so bad.

The test of many of these postulates would be the coming assembly elections in November this year, where Modi would try to display his organisational abilities to show that he has it in him to turn the corner for his party. If he manages to win all the five assemblies, then there would be fewer people who would dispute his ability to win an election in different geographies.

The Congress’s real test would be to stop him and the BJP from achieving this short term objective so that they remain relevant when the parliament elections take place in 2014. They may be helped by the growing trend amongst regional parties to stay out of any alliance with any national party.

If Nitish’s JD-U, Mamata’s TMC, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, Jayalalitha’s AIADMK, Mulayam Singh’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP stay away from the big parties then it would be a strange post-poll scenario that we would be witnessing where big money bags would step in to cobble the next government.

If that happens it would devalue not only India's oldest dynasty, but put a spoke in Modi's ambitions.

Sanjay Kapoor