In the aftermath of an election, the focus is naturally on the winner; the losers are left to either mourn or reflect on where they went wrong. The 2019 general election has produced one clear winner: Narendra Modi. Having won State Assembly elections, the Biju Janata Dal and the YSR Congress Party can also consider themselves winners. Naveen Patnaik can certainly take in his fifth consecutive win in the State Assembly. However, at the national level, there has been an over-abundance of losers: Congress, the Left, the mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, the TDP and all the constituent parties of the UPA. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress just about won a majority of seats in West Bengal, but in view of their projected target of all 42 seats from West Bengal, the result is a huge disappointment. The only exception is possibly the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu that coasted to big victories in all but one seat in the State.
What makes defeat a bitter pill to swallow for the losers is their expectation of victory. In hindsight, the 2019 will be said to have resulted in an emphatic victory for Modi, the BJP and the NDA. There was no voter ambiguity and the victory was both in terms of seats and the popular vote. It is nevertheless undeniable that at least until the exit polls divulged similar trends, the Opposition as a whole was reasonably certain that Modi was heading, if not for an outright defeat, at least for a big setback. Instead, the results suggest that the vote constituted an outright rejection of nearly all the anti-Modi forces.
Unquestionably, the biggest loser was the Congress. The Congress approached this election with the aim of securing around 150 seats which would clearly establish its primacy within the anti-BJP space. Such a performance, the party believed, would once and for all put an end to all uncertainty over who would be the leader of the anti-BJP combination. A good performance, it was hoped, would begin the process — begun with the victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — of the party’s larger reinstatement as India’s premier party.
Unlike 2014 when the Congress faced the electorate in a dispirited way and passively awaited the secular misgivings over Modi to be manifested, the party in 2019 was much better prepared. There was a conscious attempt to project Rahul Gandhi as a thoughtful but combative leader. Basing itself of data, the party focussed single-mindedly on puncturing the Prime Minister’s reputation for unimpeachable integrity. Assisted by an array of economists, both national and international, an attempt was made to project an alternative vision of Nyay — a vision that included a very handsome lollipop. Again, unlike 2014 when India’s intellectuals detached their hatred of Modi from outright support to the Congress, this election witnessed an outright endorsement of either the Congress or the mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh. The commitment to a post-poll tie-up that would, by some magic, generate an alternative arrangement, was so strong that institutions such as the judiciary and the Election Commission were mercilessly flayed for not coming out openly against the Modi government.
With the Congress failing to make the grade for recognition as the Leader of Opposition, and the mahagathbandhan floundering in UP and other grand alliances in Karnataka, Jharkhand and Bihar, disappointment has turned to dejection. Beginning from his petulant press conference on May 23 when he conceded Amethi, Rahul has reacted with childish tantrums, something he may have picked up from his gurus who have blamed the quality of democracy for the re-election of Modi. Unlike the West Bengal who has chosen to blunt the BJP challenge by taking to the streets, the Congress has chosen to admit itself to the ICU. The party has imposed a month-long ban on engaging with the media and seems to be awaiting its media supporters to fill up column inches with the assertion that the Congress must stick resolutely to its core principles and dynastic leadership. Even the evidence of a staggering consolidation of Hindu votes hasn’t prompted the Congress leadership — at least so far — to acknowledge the necessity of a political shift. The Gandhi ecosystem has merely advocated a back-to-basics and “hard” secularism as responses to a defeat that was as much a repudiation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s filtered ideology as it was of his great-grandson’s leadership. The most radical suggestion from Congress well-wishers is that maybe Priyanka Vadra — the Brahmastra that didn’t quite hit its target — should replace her bother temporarily.
A similar paralysis appears to have overtaken the three big caste-based parties and it is unlikely they will come up with anything new. Only the TMC, now faced with a challenging Assembly election in 2021, has decided to invoke Bengali sub-nationalism and street confrontation. These may well be imperfect responses but at least Mamata Banerjee is determined to mobilise her forces for the battle ahead.
The overall conclusion from the reaction of the main Opposition parties is that they will wait for the Modi Government to make mistakes. If he does, they will have a window of opportunity, perhaps in time for the Assembly polls in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana. However, if the Modi Government reinforces its image of purposeful governance, the process of a single-party dominance will be further reinforced. This will mean that the Opposition space will be outsourced to the “beautiful people”, the media, activists in academia, the foreign-funded NGOs and the Muslim and Christian community leaders. These were the groups that were most enthusiastic in their opposition to Modi. The Congress was merely their political instrument.
Sunday, 02 June 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta | in Usual Suspects
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