The BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee once crashed to a mere two seats in 1984, and both coming from, surprise, surprise, South India. But that did not prevent the BJP from working hard on the ground, winning inch by inch, state by state before mounting an all-out attack on the Congress to dislodge it at the centre.
It took over three decades, but BJP appeared to have a strategy in place and boots on the ground to make it happen.
The BJP strengthened its position in the states it won power – Gujarat for the past over 20 years, Madhya Pradesh for over 15 years. First entered coalition governments and then led a coalition government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who ran an efficient government. For strategic reasons, it even put Hindutva agenda on the backburner at that stage.
The return of the Congress, somewhat unexpectedly in 2004 and its near impossible victory in 2009 to form UPA 2, coincided with the weakening of the party that seemingly grew visibly arrogant and cut off from ground realities. Under the soft-spoken and benign Manmohan Singh as PM, the Congress became synonymous with Corruption. It lost faith and trust of the people completely.
Its total rout was waiting to happen, only Congress could not see it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, positioned himself as the strong, incorruptible, and decisive leader who would change the fate of the country. In 2014, the people bought this and dumped the Congress, and how. The Congress ended up with a mere 44 seats in the house of 545.
Five years on the opposition benches later, the Congress thought it had a chance and sought to corner Modi on corruption. All its efforts yielded a few more seats but nowhere near challenging the BJP. Modi and his party crossed the 300 mark on their own.
The Congress is yet to come out of the 2019 shock, going by a display of an apparent lack of interest of the central party leadership to claw back to power.
Yes, the BJP was the first to master social media for election campaigning. Congress has made a small dent in this. But actual political work must be done on the ground. Even today, the perception is that the Congress is failing to be an effective opposition party.
The Congress party has not been able to sort out its leadership issue, and, as a result, unable to respond to political challenges in different regions.
The Congress party lost governments, in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, despite knowing the dangers from the time they were formed. The BJP was waiting in the wings to exploit any half-chance it got. And it did.
In Karnataka the Congress lost no time in presenting the BJP with opportunities – tussle between coalition partners and ‘infighting in the party’ – were enough for the BJP to exploit and pull down the Congress-JDS government.
After Karnataka, it was mission Madhya Pradesh, where two senior Congress leaders Chief Minister Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh cornered and stifled a youthful Jyotiraditya Scindia. This was enough for the BJP to lure Scindia and his loyal MLAs. The result, Congress lost its government in Madhya Pradesh.
Now, the only big state in the country with a Congress government, Rajasthan could also slip out of its hands. Once again due to an apparent indifference of the central leadership to put its party unit in the state in order. Its two key leaders, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot were not even on talking terms.
After feeling slighted repeatedly, Pilot revolted and ‘landed in BJP ruled Haryana’ with his loyal MLAs plunging Rajasthan into a political turmoil.
For a party fighting an existential battle against an expansionist ruling BJP, this raging feud could not have come at a worse time.
After losing a string of states to the BJP, even after winning popular vote and seats in Goa, Manipur, and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress could add Rajasthan to this list.
The only person standing in the way of the BJP in the state is Ashok Gehlot, who used the occasion to finish Pilot off within the party. The events in the Congress are powered by diametrically opposite perspectives of the regional and national leadership.
While Gehlot wants Pilot out at all costs, the central party leadership appears to be trying to retain him.
But if the high command really wanted to keep Sachin in the party fold, its silence for one and half years is inexplicable.
It is only natural that the BJP would jump in, although unlike in Madhya Pradesh, a trifle discreetly.
In a significant indication, Gehlot ignored high command’s diktats to go easy on Pilot and launched into a blistering personal attack against Pilot in a coarse language. He charged Pilot with hobnobbing with the BJP and described him as a betrayer, making it difficult for him to return to Congress.
Political developments in Rajasthan have gathered pace, despite part of the political drama having reached the highest court of the land.
Gehlot seems to have the numbers, as of now, and is confident of taking the floor test.
Now the most important thing to note is that revolts by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot are not based on ideological issues.
These have erupted due to mishandling of house-keeping issues by the party leadership. If Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh cornered Scindia, Pilot claims he was being side-lined in the party and in government decision-making.
Clearly, the Congress leadership could have sat these people down and brokered lasting peace.
But it did not. Or could not. It may have lost a lot of its influence after a string of losses.
The Congress space has already been occupied by regional forces in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by YSRCP and TRS respectively, by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in West Bengal. And in Maharashtra, it is the Shiv Sena occupying the anti-BJP space. In Delhi, Kejriwal and AAP has annexed Congress voter base. In Tamil Nadu, Congress was evicted in the late 60s.
The Congress and its cadres are demoralised as state after state that they won against all odds is slipping out of their hands. Clearly not a way to rebuild the party and take on the most powerful election fighting machinery called the BJP.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes in the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]