Small secular parties hold the key - GulfToday

Small secular parties hold the key to elections

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

India-poll

Indian Congress activists walk in a rally in Siliguri, India. File/AFP

By BRP Bhaskar

With the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule, the stage has been set for the people to give their verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance.  

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has firmed up electoral alliances across the country. The Congress, the main opposition party, however, is yet to put its act together.  

A year ago the Congress had decided on a pragmatic approach in forging alliances and evolving a workable common programme with a view to defeating the BJP.

This was essentially re-statement of the stand it had taken before the 2004 elections, which enabled the party to lead two successive United Progressive Alliance governments.  

There was, however, one important difference. Unlike on the earlier occasion, there was no mention of leadership of the alliance. Silence on the subject impliedly recognised the party’s loss of primacy in the last five years.

The Congress, which wielded power at the Centre and in the states in the early years of Independence, still has a pan-Indian appeal but it now heads the government only in five of the 29 states.  The BJP is in power in 10.

Rahul Gandhi, who replaced his mother Sonia Gandhi at the helm, has enthused younger elements within the party, but the extent of his appeal beyond the party’s ranks is unclear.

His early attempts to contain factionalism in the party, which is rampant in many states, were not successful. When he chose a leader who had moved away from the rival factions in Kerala to head the state party, the group leaders, forgetting their feud, joined hands to render him ineffective. Rahul Gandhi could not help him and he quit in disgust.

In the party’s handling of issues connected with the Assembly elections in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, too, the old guard was at work. By going alone in these states, instead of carrying Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, the party damaged the prospects of an electoral alliance with these parties in Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest number of seats (80) in the Lok Sabha.

Inability to strike a deal with Dalit icon BR Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar has put it in a difficult position in Maharashtra, which has the second largest number of seats (48) in the Lok Sabha.

Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has tied up with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, and the combine appears to be in a position to draw Dalit and Muslim votes. To counter them, the Congress reportedly plans to accommodate BSP and SP in its long-standing alliance with Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party in this state.

The BJP had made a clean sweep of all seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi state in 2014. But in the Assembly elections that followed the Aam Admi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, made a big sweep. Although the Congress had fared poorly in both elections, Kejriwal sought an alliance with it to avoid a split in anti-BJP votes. The old guard shot it down.

All this suggests that the Congress is functioning without a clear understanding of where it stands and how it got there.

The old guard’s influence is also discernible in Rahul Gandhi’s tactical soft Hindutva line. It is a double-edged weapon. It may help the party in the short run but its long-term effects will be deleterious.  

It is potentially damaging to India’s secular ethos which the Congress party’s early leaders, especially the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had assiduously built, braving the challenge of communal forces.

The Congress and the BJP are the main players only in some states in the north and the west. In most states in the east and the south, both of them are small players and have to ride piggyback on regional parties.  

In 2014, the combined vote share of the BJP and the Congress was only a little over 50 per cent. That means a little less than half of the voters are with small national parties or regional parties, and they head the government in 14 of the 29 states.

The Congress has been on the decline for decades and its best chance today lies in working out stable alliances with small secular parties, especially those that command the support of the weaker sections that have moved away from it. Rahul Gandhi must deal with them directly instead of relying on the old guard which is out of tune with current realities.

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