The Congress party’s vanishing act in the 2020 Delhi assembly election must be heartening for the Aam Aadmi Party. The Arvind Kejriwal-led party had secured only 18 per cent votes — four percentage points less than the Congress — in Delhi in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It had trailed behind the Congress in most Muslim-dominated assembly segments.
So, if the Congress was putting up a fight in Delhi, which it ruled from 1998 to 2013, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal would be worried. Instead of splitting anti-incumbency votes, the Congress would end up damaging the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) more because the two parties vie for the same vote bank, especially Muslims and Dalits. That’s why Kejriwal must be grateful to the Congress — for virtually sitting out of the Delhi contest.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), therefore, is livid. “The Congress is triggering a short-circuit in its own house to ensure that the neighbour has no lights,” a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary from Delhi told me last week. “We are missing our star campaigner. If the Congress wants to save its money, we can fund and mobilise crowds for his rallies,” he added, half in jest. The star campaigner he referred to was former Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The RSS functionary’s jibe at Gandhi, however, also betrayed frustration in the BJP-RSS camp over what it perceives as the Congress party’s complicity with the AAP in ensuring that the anti-BJP votes don’t get divided.
The Congress’s star campaigners have stayed away from Delhi election, while the BJP has fielded its top guns, including 16 Union ministers led by Amit Shah and four chief ministers, apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to canvass for party candidates. The Gandhi family is likely to show up in some public meetings in the remaining four days of the Delhi election campaign, but that would be only fulfilling formalities in such a high-octane contest.
When the Gandhi family had virtually stayed out of Haryana and Maharashtra assembly elections — with Rahul Gandhi addressing barely half-a-dozen rallies in both states together — it was due to its conviction in the inevitability of its defeat. It was also a ‘family strategy’ to teach senior leaders a lesson, although it backfired, exposing the Gandhi family’s electoral irrelevance. In Haryana, former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda almost pulled off a victory despite the Congress high command; and in Maharashtra and later in Jharkhand, the fightback was led by its partners — the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
Congress’ only hope
After these ‘personal setbacks’, Rahul Gandhi visits India less often. Congress veterans have, therefore, sensed an opportunity: Let the regional parties lead the fightback, the way they were instrumental in the undoing of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2004. Remember how the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) brought BJP-AIADMK to nil in Tamil Nadu and how the Left parties dashed BJP’s hopes in West Bengal by reducing Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) to one in the 42-member Lok Sabha contingent from the state.
Much has been written about the difference between the BJP of Modi-Shah in 2019 and of Vajpayee-Advani in 2004. The Congress knows that Shah’s BJP would be different in 2024, too.
After the loss in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the RSS had pointed out that the BJP had ‘vyakti (individual)’ and ‘vikas (development)’ but had lost its ‘vichardhara (ideology)’. As it is, if the current trend continues until 2024 Lok Sabha election, the BJP would again have only two of the three elements — ‘vyakti’ (whether Modi or Shah) and ‘vichardhara’.
The likely absence of the third element — ‘vikas’ — is what gives the Congress hopes. The BJP has been dismissive of economic doomsayers. The party leaders think — as many Congressmen did during Manmohan Singh regime before 2009 — that common people don’t understand economic jargon such as fiscal deficit or the GDP growth rate. No wonder, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Budget 2020 speech, chose to talk about double-digit nominal GDP growth.
But Modi must know in his heart of hearts that if people are no longer ready to listen to his appeal to vote for his regents (chief ministers hand-picked by him), then it could be the first sign of disillusionment — perhaps something like the devotees’ grudging acceptance that gods too can make mistakes.
‘Lose to win’ strategy
The Congress party’s real fear is not the BJP; it’s Narendra Modi and his personality cult. Party leaders throw their arms up in frustration: ‘Boss, Rahul Gandhi or anybody can’t do anything. Log Modi ke baare mein pagal hain (people are crazy about Modi). We will have to wait and bide our time.’ The Congress playing second fiddle in Delhi today is a strategy borne out of this frustration. It’s a big gamble though, regardless of electoral outcomes.
The Congress has the history of ceding space for immediate political goals, only to lose it forever. It started with Tamil Nadu where Indira Gandhi, in her battle against the Syndicate, chose to cede the Congress party’s political space to the DMK in exchange for its support to her government at the Centre. The Congress was soon to become a permanent fringe player in Tamil Nadu.
In the 1990s, Sitaram Kesri was happy to let Congressmen become bystanders as long as Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was mobilising huge crowds for his public meetings, which boosted his ego. After Sonia Gandhi replaced Kesri, she never tried to re-capture the party’s political space because Lalu Yadav was the first non-Congress leader of prominence to defend her on her foreign origin issue. The Congress is irrelevant in Bihar today.
Look at each state where the Congress has been reduced to the political fringe. They tell the same story of the party’s inability to recover its political space due to compromises with or surrender to regional outfits — out of convenience or compulsion.
The Congress is seeking to ride on the regional parties’ shoulders again to try to survive the ‘Modi wave’. The parties may not mind carrying the Congress weight because it may help them stand stable in the face of the rising wave. They will, however, throw the Congress down to be carried away by the water of the receding wave.
So, if Arvind Kejriwal wins this election, which party do you think he will find it easier to finish first? No prizes for guessing it right.