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The amazing vanishing trick of the Congress

February 14, 2014 18:32 IST

As the nation heads toward the general election, the Congress fortunes have most likely dipped below the point of no return. The Modi-BJP juggernaut rolls along despite some hiccups. And the meteor that rose in the form of the AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal seems to be disintegrating, says Shreekant Sambrani.

'One week is a long time in politics,' Harold Wilson had famously observed. That would make six months virtually an eon. And so it is in our Republic, which has been holding elections for over six decades.

Last Independence Day, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, not yet the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, hoisted the flag and addressed the nation shortly after Dr Manmohan Singh had done the same from the Red Fort.

The political picture that rainy day was as cloudy as the sky. Modi had become the chief of the BJP campaign in the teeth of dogged resistance within. That immediately led to the break-up of its long-standing Bihar alliance with the Janata Dal-United. No one was quite sure how that would affect the BJP's prospects, as Nitish Kumar's party was seen as the stronger of the two.

The as-yet muted demands for Modi to be named as the party's choice for the top job were buffeted with the seemingly unassailable logic that this action was at best premature, since it might adversely impact the party's chances in the assembly elections across central India.

The Congress was on the defensive, but still very much in power and not to be written off. Most opinion polls then forecast a virtual dead-heat. Both major parties hovered around the 150-seat mark. The Aam Aadmi Party was not even a footnote in these!

The BJP named Modi as its standard-bearer the next month. The prevailing view was that deep divisions within would make the BJP struggle to cross the Rubicon of 180 seats it needed to attract post-poll allies, and possibly sharper anti-incumbency feelings might affect the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh outcomes. Rajasthan was a question mark.

On December 8, the BJP posted landslide victories in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and romped home comfortably in Chhattisgarh, where it was not supposed to do well. All this was beyond its own best expectations.

The only fly in the ointment was its narrow miss in Delhi (which really should be thought of as a municipal election), where the Congress lost badly and the AAP took the silver. That was construed as the latter's 'landmark victory'.

Four major opinion polls in the last two months differed in detail, but converged remarkably at the aggregate. The BJP is poised to win 200 or more seats, the Congress flounders around 100 and despite strong awareness among urban voters, the AAP is hard put to get into double figures, with its seats coming from Delhi and one or two other large cities.

The BJP vote share is expected to exceed that of the Congress decisively.

Warning lights have flashed all over: voting is still three months away, the impact of newer alliances is not factored in, and that hardy perennial, the sample size (of around 25,000 to 30,000) is too small. Anyone with any familiarity with statistics will readily concede that when exercises by different agencies and with different methodologies throw up such remarkable convergences, there is every likelihood of the inferences being good representations of ground realities.

American pollsters have made reliable forecasts with sample sizes as small as 1,500 in an electorate of over 120 million voters. Our polls may not meet the exacting specifications of those in the United States, but we do not need a Nate Silver, the celebrated analyst, to tell us which way the wind is blowing.

These polls, conducted a month or so after November also showed the BJP vote share to be greater, and that of the Congress lower than their respective actual performances in those state elections. The BJP had similar upturns in its fortunes even in areas not known to support it -- Orissa and West Bengal, for instance.

In Bihar, it was poised to make JD-U bite the dust. That made an anchor quip, 'Mamata left the Congress and prospered, while Nitish left the BJP and drowned!'

The Congress eclipse is so complete that the polls put its strength in the coming elections in single digits in most states, barring perhaps West Bengal and Karnataka. Even in the 1977 post-Emergency debacle when it lost the north completely, it had remained strong in the south and in Maharashtra.

The next election does not mean the end of the 130-year old party, but would certainly be its lowest ebb so far.

Even more remarkable is Modi's own appeal. This is perhaps the first time in polling history that a prime ministerial candidate has met with a nation-wide preference of over 40 per cent. Rahul Gandhi trails with numbers in the teens and Kejriwal in single digits.

This turnaround is much deeper than mere anti-incumbency. Abysmal economic mismanagement has caused rampant inflation, which has wrought misery and anxiety across the country, most of which does not enjoy indexed incomes.

The administration is opaque and remote.

The stench of corruption is all-pervasive.

The result is revulsion, often visceral, of the Congress-led government.

Add to this the sure-fire inverse Midas touch of the Congress. Everything it touches turns to ashes, it seems. The major policy announcements of late last year meant to build investor confidence led to cancellation or withdrawal of major projects totaling billions of dollars.

The gambit of exercising Solomon-like judgment in the Telangana tangle has instead decimated the Congress in the one region that formed the bedrock of its strength in the last two elections. Media observers were unanimous in their assessment of the prime minister's January press conference being a washout. They were perhaps hasty.

The maiden television interview of the Lone Star Congress leader Rahul Gandhi that soon followed was such an unmitigated disaster that Dr Manmohan Singh shone in comparison!

As we await the formal announcement of general elections for the 16th Lok Sabha, the Congress fortunes have most likely dipped below the point of no return. The Modi-BJP juggernaut rolls along despite some hiccups. And the meteor that rose in the form of the AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal seems to be disintegrating upon its entry into the atmosphere of realpolitik.

In contrast, a positive aura surrounds Modi. Despite the Congress carpet-bombing of all television channels, the Modi rallies attract huge crowds from Kochi to Kanpur and Bhubaneshwar to Bhopal. That may not necessarily indicate how people will actually vote, but the messages delivered probably explain the enthusiasm.

The hope that Modi offers for all segments comes through despite his bombast and oversimplifications, while Gandhi's message is fragmented and Kejriwal's is entirely negative.

Modi's vision is called grandiose, not specific enough, but the average voter does not want to know how economic management will be fine-tuned or whether there will be real reforms.

Hit hard by the economic downturn and drift, people want to clutch at some hope for the future, even if it is in the form of straws in the wind.

India desperately seeks change and hope as it awaits a new regime. Modi, and at the moment, he alone, offers exactly that.

Still, his rise is unpalatable to a very large number of media commentators. I have been a strong critic of his performance as the chief minister and his handling of 2002. But to deny that he now has the most widespread and persistent appeal is to bury one's head in the sand. Regardless of our personal preferences, 'barring accidents, there will be a change of government in New Delhi after the elections, and that the new government will be formed by a BJP-led alliance, with Mr Modi as prime minister' as the sober Business Standard editorial said on Republic Day.

Shreekant Sambrani