Bumps in the opposition's turf
Lok Sabha elections this time will extend beyond a mere BJP-Congress battle as regional stakeholders are demanding greater relevance in national policymaking
BJP in Kerala may have boosted its image with the Sabarimala issue, but it is unlikely to gain much electoral advantage from it in 2019. That has been the pattern for decades: it has a zero conversion rate, even though it has a vote share of 10 per cent. It would certainly like to weaken, harm, destroy the CPI-M. Towards this end, it has to direct its cadres to quietly help Congress. But, in this instance, it is not inclined to augment Congress' numbers in New Delhi.
K Karunakaran, the Kerala Congress maestro, had mastered the art of playing "footsy" under the table with RSS. Victory margins in Kerala have generally been slim. Whenever it suited both parties, RSS cadres were injected into the process, thus improving Congress chances. In 1989, the wily Karunakaran went one better. Holding BJP with one hand, he gripped the Muslim League with the other.
Kerala-UP linkages were brought into play even in the aftermath of the Shilanyas or the brick laying ceremony in Ayodhya. On November 10, 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was the darling of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) because, in violation of the Allahabad High Court order, he allowed the Shilanyas to take place on disputed land, precisely what the VHP demanded. His officials were instructed to put out the story that the brick laying ceremony was done "a good 100 metres from the disputed area". But the truth was leaked by VHP, out to prove its muscle.
VHP, in seventh heaven because of the turn in Ayodhya, paid Rajiv Gandhi back in Kerala by instructing its cadres to help Congress. But despite all exertions, Rajiv Gandhi, who had won 400 seats in 1984, lost the 1989 elections.
This somewhat extended focus on an election this reporter was witness to, may help understand facets of the electoral battle ahead. Note how Congress mistakes tactics for strategy with unerring frequency.
For Uttar Pradesh in 2019, a seat-sharing formula had been suggested some months ago. BJP's stunning victory in the state for Lok Sabha in 2014 had not been with wide margins. Based on this fact, a formula was suggested. Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Congress would be given tickets for seats wherever they came second in 2014. By this formula, BSP, SP, Congress and RLD would be entitled to 34, 31, five and two seats, give or take a few. That Congress' performance in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh entitles it to more seats in UP is now purely theoretical because the BSP, SP (and possibly RLD) deal has been sealed and delivered. By announcing its intention to contest all 80 seats, Congress is helping nobody except possibly the BJP.
Congress cannot have forgotten the panic which gripped it when all assessments indicated the party might be a cypher in UP in 2014. Week after week, Sonia Gandhi's side-kick in Rae Bareli and Amethi, Kishori Lal Sharma, twiddled his thumbs waiting in vain for Priyanka Gandhi's promised visitations. Looking after the two family fiefdoms was the therapy assigned to her. But she would not show up. Only the fear of her mother and brother losing in their citadels spurred her to action. In a week of effective campaigning, beaming an Indira Gandhi like charisma, she did help keep her family in Parliament.
That was just four-and-a-half years ago. To play spoilsport in UP now will diminish the party. There is so much else to play for. Look, how ham-handedly the BJP has played its hand on the Citizen's Bill in Assam. Here is a chance for Rahul Gandhi to try and recover his turf in the North East. It is generally believed that Congress lost the brilliant organisation man, Himanta Biswa Sarma, to BJP by treating him high-handedly when Sarma came to consult the Congress President. Apparently, the duration of the meeting was spent with Rahul feeding biscuits to his dog.
There is a profound lesson for BJP and an opportunity for Congress opening up in the North East. There will be far-reaching consequences for BJP in the lesson it is about to learn. There are limits to the religious consolidation that can be affected by targeting minorities. The party's hands were more or less forced when Prime Minister V P Singh dusted up the Mandal committee report providing reservation to Other Backward Castes (OBCs). That was the context of L K Advani's Rath Yatra and the movement to build Ram Temple. The rest is familiar history.
RSS and its allied outfits have never quite accepted the centuries-old caste pyramid being exposed to western notions of democracy, upward mobility, social justice. There is huge, visceral resistance to ideas of equality in a system which, in this life, is inherently unequal, where upward mobility is only possible in a series of lives hereafter. Communalism, therefore, does not only feed on imagined or real historical wrongs alone. It is, in effect, also a strategy to keep the caste pyramid from keeling over.
In Assam and the North-East, the faultline is not caste but Bengalis versus Assamese and plainsmen versus the tribes. The situation is custom made for constructive intervention by Congress.
In West Bengal, Congress presents a confused picture. A small section is willing to go along with Mamata Banerjee. Of the 44 Congress MLAs, eight have crossed over to Mamata's Trinamool Congress. At her rally, in Kolkata, Mamata pointedly invited Sonia Gandhi, ignoring Rahul Gandhi. The upshot is that Congress will send a senior leader to the rally. In other words, the party will remain on talking terms with Mamata without letting her dictate the terms of endearment. But, if the Congress is on talking terms with Mamata, so far, CPI-M Secretary General Sitaram Yechury's insistence to hold the Congress hand in Kolkata must await clarity. Also, the Congress is fighting the CPI-M tooth and nail in Kerala. Should that also not require some clarity?
(The author is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are strictly personal)