The emerging consensus that there is a wave in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab is terrible news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, not because they will have lost the election but because the road ahead will become that much more difficult.
The image of Narendra Modi, after reversals in this round of election, will have lost sheen irretrievably. The euphoria his victory in the May 2014 general election had generated should have begun to evaporate after two successive AAP victories in Delhi in December 2013 and February 2015, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal-United (RJD-JDU) victory in Bihar followed by BJP defeats in the 2016 assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.
These did not appear to demoralise him. But defeat in key states in the current round will create internal restiveness and aggravate the political effects of demonetisation.
For the Congress, the AAP’s further rise spells an existential danger. Its inability to reclaim lost ground in the northern states will begin to look like a pitiable reality, exactly as the visage of the Gandhi-Nehru parivar will. Holding on to Akhilesh Yadav’s coat-tails in Uttar Pradesh will carry neither Rahul Gandhi nor the Congress very far.
That Priyanka Gandhi may give the party a helping hand at a critical juncture is a hope some peripheral Congress leaders nurse. If her behaviour were anything to go by, she is by some accounts in indifferent health and cannot focus even on Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s constituencies, Amethi and Rae Bareli, which have been assigned to her for safe-keeping.
But she clearly has a tremendous sense of survival. There were fears during the 2014 general elections that these seats would be swept away in the Modi wave. That her mother and brother may not be in the next Parliament was an unnerving prospect. She stiffened her sinews and in two weeks of campaigning ensured success for her sibling and her mother. She has talent but, apparently, is short on stamina.
There are several reasons for the Congress’ expected defeat. Among the reasons is the habitual delay in naming the chief ministerial candidate. Amrindar Singh was projected as Chief Minister far too late in the day.
Congressmen murmur but never actually say that the Congress President will not project anybody who might have the potential of eclipsing the family, particularly Rahul Gandhi. I am not implying Amrinder specifically, but there are instances.
I have always maintained that in 2014 Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit may well have come up trumps in the state had the party High Command by hint or gesture talked of her in Prime Ministerial terms. Remember the state victory would have been her fourth in a row. Her late husband had been a popular IAS officer; she had been a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Instead of these credentials being advertised, something that would have enthused the cadres, the High Command demonstrated hostile indifference. Dikshit lost. That was the beginning of Kejriwal and AAP.
It is now of course too late in the day for any movement towards fulfilment of Sonia Gandhi’s dream of crowning Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister. What future for the party Vice President who is now playing second fiddle to Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow?
During the Panchmarhi conclave of the Congress in September 1998, senior leaders Kamal Nath, Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasad had refused to see the writing on the wall: they had shot down a proposal that the Congress must seek alliances for survival.
“No,” they said, “we must recover the social base lost to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.” By what feat was this goal to be achieved?
Chandrajit Yadav and Rajesh Pilot (Sachin Pilot’s father) cried themselves hoarse: “In the present circumstances, there is no alternative to alliances.”
What irony, then, that 18 years after Sonia Gandhi shot down alliances at the Panchmarhi conclave, an alliance has been forged in Uttar Pradesh precisely with a party which was anathema to Congress leaders who are even today part of the Sonia coterie.
The BJP and the Congress would not have been in the state of funk in which they are today had they defeated each other in the contest. As the third force called AAP rises from Delhi to Punjab, making inroads in Goa too, the demoralisation of the Congress in states like Rajasthan will become palpable as results start coming on March 11.
Corporates, comfortable with alternating between the Congress and the BJP, will now have to find new ways of placing their bets.
In anticipation of the Punjab results, Kejriwal has already immersed himself in the Delhi Municipal Corporation elections due in two months.
What must cause considerable disquiet to the Modi-Amit Shah duet is the AAP targeting Gujarat. To make matters worse, Hardik Patel, the Patidar icon, is already positioning himself in that state as a Shiva Sena leader.
Despite the chaos attending demonetisation, Modi was able to prove one thing: he could make the country stand outside banks without any leader being able to ignite a revolt. Things will change now. The momentum behind Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav will make Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad and others look like a muscular array of regional forces.
Where Rahul Gandhi fits into this arrangement only time will tell.
– Saeed Naqvi
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal)