The Congress party is in terminal decline. All it needs is a little push and it’ll collapse like a pack of cards. Its dormant vote share that doesn’t convert into seats can easily be stolen by another party. That’s what the BJP did in Tripura and Odisha. That’s what the Aam Aadmi Party did in Delhi. That’s what the BJP is trying to do in Telangana. That’s what the BJP just did to the Left in West Bengal.
The Congress is dying, surely but slowly. The process might take decades and new forces might slowly replace it. This slow process might keep the BJP in power for a very long time, just like the Congress enjoyed single-party rule until 1989.
The only interruption to the Congress’ single party rule until 1989 was the post-Emergency election. People were so angered by the Emergency, particularly by nasbandi, the enforced sterilisation of men.
Many Modi critics hoped he would perform so poorly that voters would similarly boot him out even though the opposition has been as weak and fragmented as it was against Indira Gandhi. But Narendra Modi is too wise for that. He also knows what happened in 1977, the election that first gave mainstream legitimacy to Hindutva forces and propelled the Jana Sangh (predecessor of the BJP) to limelight. A repeat of a 1977-like situation is, thus, highly unlikely.
A revival of the Congress party is also improbable because it is unlikely that Rahul Gandhi will become a politician smarter than Modi and mesmerise the masses. It is equally unlikely that he will abdicate the throne of Congress party president for someone more competent. Even if he does, and the Congress gets another Sitaram Kesari, it would start withering away like it did under Sitaram Kesari. It might win a state or three in the next five years but come 2024 and it would again be destroyed by Narendra Modi.
The only thing that can defeat Modi
Modi has made the national election mercilessly presidential. Neither caste nor sub-nationalism, neither anti-incumbency nor high index of opposition unity can bring him down.
That does not mean Narendra Modi is invincible. Under his watch, the BJP has lost many state assembly elections. Bihar and Delhi in 2015, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018 were some examples. While all these elections had different dynamics, there is one commonality. All of these elections had a chief ministerial candidate (or likely hopeful) people were able to trust.
Bihar in 2015 wasn’t just the caste arithmetic of RJD and JD(U). It was also the persona of Nitish Kumar. “Kendra mein Modi, Bihar mein Nitish (Modi at the Centre, Nitish for Bihar),” is how many voters saw it and that’s what brought down the BJP vote-share enough to lose the election.
It was the same in the Delhi state assembly election of 2015, in which the personality campaign of Arvind Kejriwal won 67 of 70 seats, making the BJP lose some seats on which Modi had himself campaigned.
In Chhattisgarh, a change of leadership helped the Congress, as the OBC face of Bhupesh Baghel was trusted by people. In Rajasthan, people were voting out Vasundhara Raje Scindia and voting in Ashok Gehlot, even as they were clear they’d prefer Modi to Rahul Gandhi for the Lok Sabha election. Note how people talk in terms of CM/PM faces. It’s the top thing Indian voters seem to care about, for good reasons too. Popularity ratings of top politicians are now more important survey points than banal seat forecasts.
In Madhya Pradesh, one will have to give credit to Kamal Nath, a leader with a pan-state presence, who was made the party’s state unit chief just months before the election. If Rahul Gandhi had allowed presidential campaigns around these faces in Rajasthan and MP, the Congress could have won larger victories.
Replacing the Congress
An ailing Congress can be replaced by a pan-India face who can mesmerise the people of India. We have to think about this exactly as we think about the Presidential campaign in the United States. What could defeat Modi is not a party, not an alliance, not a freebie promise, not anti-incumbency. It is only and only another human being who becomes a mass leader and captures the public imagination. If you start hearing people say “that person should be prime minister,” you will have the answer to a question we heard a lot this election: “Aur hai kaun? (Who’s the alternative?)”
The toughest part is the discovery of this right human being from 1.3 billion of us, who has the potential to be seen as a better alternative to the prime minister’s chair than Narendra Modi.
The face must then focus exclusively on the national political campaign, seeking to win the narrative wars with the Modi machine every single day, because we live in the era of permanent campaigning.
The person can take no holidays, afford no distractions, and can’t forget national politics for a single day to win state elections. Voters see state and national politics differently, and they have demonstrated this over and over again. One of Rahul Gandhi’s several mistakes these last five years was to think that the road to Delhi lies through the states. He immersed himself into the Gujarat 2017 and Karnataka 2017 assembly elections, just when he needed to focus on exploiting rising unemployment and a palpable economic slowdown to build a positive national narrative.
Desh ka neta kaisa ho
How could such a person possibly defeat the BJP with all its cadres, state governments, RSS, money, pliant media and muscle? All of that falls into place once the masses start discovering a face they can pin their hopes on.
It’s happened many times in history when a single human face has captured the imagination of all of India, and we’re not talking of Amitabh Bachchan or Sachin Tendulkar. People who have done it in politics have included Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Arvind Kejriwal (between 2011 and 2014) and Narendra Modi.
The most incredible of these was V.P. Singh, who was himself a member of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, perhaps the most powerful government in independent India since Rajiv Gandhi had won 404 of 514 seats. But V.P. Singh rebelled, making noise over the Bofors scandal, and was thrown out. He went around India campaigning on the Bofors issue, created a new party called the Janata Dal, stitched regional alliances, and voila! He defeated Rajiv Gandhi and became prime minister, albeit of a rag-tag coalition government that didn’t last long. His election slogan was “Raja nahi fakeer hai / desi ki tardier hai (He’s a fakir not a king / he’s the country’s destiny)”.
When Arvind Kejriwal became a national face with the Lokpal movement, he made the mistake of thinking the path to the Centre goes through the states as well. He shouldn’t have contested the Delhi assembly elections and instead directly aimed at the Lok Sabha. He reduced his own stature by becoming a bijli-pani leader of civic issues in Delhi. He then thought he’ll win Punjab, then Goa, then Haryana… but as V.P. Singh showed, Indians have a national imagination that doesn’t require mastering state politics.
Or just look at the rise of the BJP itself. It went from two seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989 (and used these 85 MPs to support the V.P. Singh government and keep the Congress out of power). This transformative rise within the space of five years happened because the party had a face (L.K. Advani) with a campaign (Ram Janmabhoomi). It didn’t have a government in any state at the time. The capture of state capitals followed the rise in central politics.
In 2014, it was not a given that people in Bihar or Karnataka would accept a Gujarati they had barely heard of as the country’s PM. That is the gap the Modi campaign of 2014 filled—and he never stopped campaigning once he won.
Which person could be sold to the masses as a better alternative to Narendra Modi for the task of making 1.3 billion Indians prosperous and secure? That is the answer opposition forces should seek to find. It’s definitely not Rahul Gandhi. It could be anyone, and not necessarily someone who’s already in politics.
Views are personal.