Saturday 22 June 2019

Why Congress collapsed against BJP (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat

The reason was not too much of Rahul Gandhi, but too little of the Rahul of the period before Sonia effectively took back the reins of leadership from his hands.

Several within the opposition are seeking consolation after their pitiful showing during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls by pointing to EVMs as the cause of the debacle. In order to materially change the overall result, there would need to have been a countrywide program substituting select EVMs with machines programmed to show a pre-determined result. No such effort seems to have come to the attention of the Election Commission of India, or indeed to anyone else, even in this age of smartphone cameras. Also, for EVM manipulation to succeed, there would need to be seamless human links forming a long chain of causation, beginning with those designing computer commands and ending in a system of booth management that would have to be flawless in implementation. Given that the BJP won massively even in states run partly or wholly by the Congress party, those accusing the BJP of EVM fraud are implying that such governments sabotaged themselves. Surely the Congress party had its own booth managers who would have been vigilant enough to expose any manipulation of the EVMs. A better hypothesis is that the BJP landslide was caused by a torrent of errors made by the opposition parties, principally the Congress, which lost almost all the Lok Sabha seats in which it was engaged in a direct battle with the BJP. Along with the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was the continuing unpopularity of the Congress that was responsible for the measly numbers won by the party in the present Lok Sabha. The assumption of leadership of the party by Rahul Gandhi failed to change voter perceptions about it at the national level.
Why did the Congress put up such a weak show? Rahul Gandhi sought to replicate the 2014 strategy of the BJP against his party by making corruption the centrepiece of his sallies against the Prime Minister and the government. The problem was his focus on just a single issue—Rafale—and the use of arguments that were designed to appeal to lawyers or to chartered accountants rather than to the overwhelming mass of voters in India. It did not help that the principal spokesperson against the BJP on the corruption issue was P. Chidambaram, who has himself been charge-sheeted in various criminal cases, and who (together with his family) can certainly not be described as less than immensely wealthy through ways that are under investigation. The leading lights of the Congress during the UPA decade, many of whom have become tainted in the public mind (and these days in the records of the investigative agencies), continued to remain the most visible faces of a party that was supposed to have undergone a generational facelift after Rahul Gandhi took charge as AICC president on 16 December 2017. Doing a repeat of the 1989 Bofors debacle was impossible unless the Congress party had examples other than Rafale. Also needed was another V.P. Singh (with his crusader image) to lead the charge, not former UPA ministers speckled with corruption charges. The Congress needed to move beyond a single issue and go after the BJP on a wide range of corruption charges, but the fact that such a slew of allegations was absent indicated to the voter that Team Rahul’s attacks on the BJP about corruption were not credible, especially in a context where the “changed” Rahul Congress appeared to voters to be the Sonia Congress with a few cosmetic changes. This “zero change” perception got reinforced when Sonia Gandhi once again took centrestage in pre-poll negotiations, and when she contested for the Lok Sabha once again, instead of handing over Rae Bareli to Priyanka. The latter’s refusal to contest in Varanasi was seen as a lack of confidence, which cost the Congress heavily. In the “new era” of Rahul, the voter saw only a UPA III, rather than genuine change.
Given the victory of Smriti Irani in Amethi, Rahul Gandhi may be happy that he chose to fight from a second constituency. However, that very move may have cost the AICC president the voting margin he needed for victory in Amethi. Choosing another constituency when Amethi had been such a reliable bastion was a slap in the face of voters there, and several responded by either abstaining or casting their votes for the BJP’s energetic candidate. Contesting from elsewhere cost Rahul Gandhi the Amethi Lok Sabha seat. In matters of overall strategy, the fatal error made by Rahul Gandhi was to suddenly retreat from what had been described as a “soft Hindutva” approach. He returned to the Sonia Gandhi policy matrix, focusing only on the minority vote. The “soft Hindutva” line had helped win Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, while at the same time holding on to the minority vote, but was discarded in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls. The effects of Rahul’s imaginative visit to Mansarovar, his claim of being a “Shiv Bhakt”, the numerous visits to temples, got negated when Sonia Gandhi and her electoral strategy once again became the Congress line from the initial weeks of the Lok Sabha campaign. Neither Rahul nor Priyanka called for a Ram temple at Ayodhya, a touchstone issue for many voters, especially in the Hindi belt. Rahul could have won from anywhere in Kerala, but his choice of a constituency where the Indian Union Muslim League was ubiquitous further reinforced the perception of Congress as a “Minorities Only” party. It is no surprise that Rahul Gandhi wants to quit rather than remain the titular head of what is so visibly a party still run by Sonia Gandhi and her personnel, policy matrix and brand of politics. The reason the Congress party lost so comprehensively to the BJP was not too much of Rahul Gandhi, but too little of the Rahul of the period before Sonia effectively took back the reins of leadership from his hands.

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