The sharpest observation after the five state elections has come from Mamata Banerjee. “Rahul Gandhi is a Narendra Modi asset.”
Sonia Gandhi and Rahul had mounted a bitter attack on Mamata during the campaign in West Bengal. Against this background, would she ever shake hands with the Congress? asked NDTV’s Barkha Dutt. Mamata came down sharply with the above one liner.
The implication of what Mamata said is that Rahul, and the Congress by extension, are a requirement of Modi. They, and they alone, must be the counterpoint for the musical score the BJP is composing.
In fact this composition has been underway well before the May 2014 general election which brought Modi to power. The entire Indian establishment, CII, FICCI, the electronic media, press – everybody was chatting up Rahul to stand in opposition to Modi. He was cajoled, paraded on the stage. Anchors implored him to debate Modi on live TV. As it is, Modi’s 2014 victory was because of the universal disgust with Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan Singh which was harvested by the world’s most expensive election campaign. BJP think tanks now divined that Modi will continue to look good so long as Rahul is projected as the alternative. And Mamata has quickly noticed it.
So, Rahul must remain in play to benefit Modi. Instead of admitting that Rahul is something of a non starter, his coterie keeps making excuses: his take off had been delayed because Rahul wanted to raise the party from scratch. He is teeming with ideas, say Motilal Vohra, Janardan Dwivedi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma. Only, Ahmad Patel sees authority resident elsewhere: “let’s ask Madame.” No one is willing to concede that Rahul simply doesn’t fizz.
After P.V. Narasimha Rao brought the Congress tally down to 140 seats in 1996, Sitaram Kesri as Congress President raised it by one to 141, but the next year Sonia plummeted: 114 seats. Electorally, the mother and son combination has done the party no good.
So many of the party’s wounds are self inflicted. Take the tamasha in Assam. If Sonia Gandhi can dig her heals in for her son, who can blame 81-year-old Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi dream dreams for his son, Gaurav Gogoi? Why can’t he be the next Chief Minister. Himanta Biswa Sarma was to Gogoi what Amit Shah is to Modi. He was miffed at Gogoi’s brazen nepotism, of course. But Rahul has had a role in driving Sarma away. Sarma describes a meeting with Rahul. “He is arrogant and likes to behave like a master with his servants.” It is universally acknowledged, an angry Sarma has brought down the Congress citadel in Assam.
True, the BJP now is in power in two frontline states – Jammu and Kashmir and Assam. But circumstances impose a certain moderation in both situations. It cannot permit communal excesses and live comfortably with Mehbooba Mufti in Srinagar. Nor can it put on war paint against Bangladeshis in Assam at the same time as it is having exceptionally good relations with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.
An atmosphere of moderation induces other steps. The BJP fields nine Muslim candidates of whom one has survived the fray. What if he becomes a minister? Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF would be a worried man on that count?
And now the imminence of Congress collapse is causing interesting political shifts elsewhere. In Kerala, Muslims have veered away from the Congress and Muslim League. They have voted in large numbers for the Left Front. This is welcome.
There are other lessons in these elections. The Indian ruling class has long deluded itself that the country had a durable two-party system. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where every currency note has to indicate denominations in at least 17 languages, to aim for such a system will, in the long run, prove illusory. A durable system of coalitions will surely evolve.
The five state elections have, after all, produced five results. A contest is on between two ideas of India – a federal India and a unitary one. Establishments, of which the media is a part, are generally more comfortable with two national party systems, in bad odour though they be globally. They have since the 90s, bred crony capitalism and corruption. Electoral changes sweeping the world are on that count.
That is why Mamata’s is an astute observation. By describing Rahul as a Modi asset, she is debunking the illusory two-party system at the Centre. Yes, two-party systems will be the order in the states. Come 2019, leaders like her, from the regions, will shape the power structure in New Delhi. The days of two-party compact, above the regional satraps, may be coming to an end. Parties with national pretensions must quickly find lasting partners in the states, not one night stands like the Left and the Congress had in West Bengal.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)