Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
There is never a dull moment in Indian politics, and no pandemic or disaster dampens the competitive spirits of the political class as the time table of elections wait for none.
If a steadily eroding Congress gets shrunk and its leaders scurrying to find profitable perches in other political parties, mostly the ruling BJP, election results in West Bengal where the combined might of the BJP bit the dust is leading to a rumble within the turncoats from Trinamool Congress and their likely return “home”.
If a day before television channels beamed live pictures of Congress leader Jitendra Prasada at BJP headquarters, yesterday (Friday) saw them unleash the coverage of former Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy heading back to his leader Mamata Bannerjee, after a three-year stint with the BJP.
But it is the rebellion within the Congress ranks which has the political analysts convinced that a weakened Opposition at the National level gave the BJP Government, that was caught on the wrong foot on the handling of pandemic and policy flip flops on vaccination policy, a chance to escape lightly. If anything, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the tables on the Opposition with a new narrative shifting the entire blame onto the Opposition ruled States for the vaccination policy hiccups.
For the Opposition Congress, its own house is not in order with trouble brewing for it in two of the three States it is ruling – Punjab and Haryana, where the younger leaders are straining at the leash and may dump the party. With its National leadership issue far from settled and growing rumbling in the rank and file, the Congress party is not in the pink of its health.
For the BJP and more important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there can be no good news other than its National Opposition is in shambles with little or no indication of it doing the hard work needed to revive itself.
Given the geopolitical reality of India, no other political formation than the Congress or a grouping led by it can challenge a formidable election-winning machinery like the BJP. Though West Bengal results showed that even the mighty BJP can be humbled, National elections for Lok Sabha is an entirely different ball game. Besides, there is plenty of time and legroom for Prime Minister Modi to take a pause, reflect and recalibrate his priorities in politics as also governance.
The same cannot be said of the Congress, which is unable to either retain its flock or is willing to reinvent itself and take on the ruling party in the field and on the ground, at a time when petrol prices are at an all-time high, there is economic distress and unemployment at its highest in the country.
For sure, the BJP is in a tight spot and in the recently concluded elections to five States it fared very poorly in three of them and won the consolation prize of being in the winning combination in the tiny State of Puducherry. Kerala and Tamil Nadu present reasons why the BJP will take a much longer time in becoming a party that will appeal to the voters there.
But still, the BJP can rest secure for the present that if Congress was in a poor State, none of the strong regional leaders were in a position to offer themselves as the real pan India challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
If we take DMK leader and TN Chief Minister MK Stalin, a politician with over five decades of experience, is not really known outside the borders of Tamil Nadu, which has 39 seats in Lok Sabha. And he has hitched his party’s National electoral fortunes with the Congress and is happy playing second fiddle to it during Lok Sabha elections. A Pinarai Vijayan has his stranglehold over the hearts and minds of Kerala voters but will not get even a look in, why go far, in Andhra Pradesh. None of the elected and mass leaders of the Congress or any other regional party have a National image, strong enough to be mounted as a challenger to Modi.
After Mamata Bannerjee handed out a humiliating defeat to the entire BJP, almost single-handedly in the recently concluded Assembly elections, and her daily bouts with the Prime Minister have made her well known beyond the boundaries of West Bengal. Her fearless candor and her street-fighting skills make her a dangerous opponent but on her territory. But outside West Bengal, she is no match for the present to Prime Minister Modi who still remains a very popular leader.
And to have the Opposition in such shambles at a time when Modi is facing his worst time as the Prime Minister, for even things not under his control like the pandemic is a gift that he will have to thank the Congress party for.
Would the Congress be either magnanimous enough or spiteful enough to agree to a powerful regional leader, even if from outside the part fold, and strengthen and build the personality to be pitted against Prime Miniter Modi in 2024 Lok Sabha general elections ? Of course, out of the question as would many Congress leaders will laugh away at such a suggestion as they rightly reiterate that even today Congress is the only party with a National footprint and other regional forces could rally around it.
But when Mamata Bannerjee is already off the blocks by trying to rally Chief Ministers of Opposition ruled States on different issues, the Congress is still unable to set its house in order. In Uttar Pradesh, Congress has already suffered a loss, at least in the perception of the people, when Rahul Gandhi’s close aide and former Union Minister Jitin Prasad headed to the BJP.
The end result is that there is no single leader who is taking centre stage and channelizing the anger of the people against the Central Government like Modi was able to blast the UPA 2 Government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. To that extent, the Opposition and Congress is letting the Government off the hook.
At least or so it appears. Perhaps there is some truth in Opposition lament of media bias, but when it comes to hitting the ground, Congress appears to be a slow starter. And this at a time when many States are having non-BJP Governments. It is also the BJP’s fortune that many regional forces in the country grew opposing the Congress and cannot be seen playing ball with them. A few years ago, the Telugu Desam Party floated by NTR that ejected Congress from Andhra Pradesh tied up with the same Congress in Telangana and paid a heavy price for that mistake.
At the same time, the regional forces that now face a direct threat from the BJP, like say TMC in West Bengal or DMK in Tamil Nadu or BJD in Odisha must somehow make their peace with the Congress and allow it to lead their grand grouping for a realistic chance of making a fight of 2024 general elections.
At least in nine States of MP, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Assam, Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh, Congress is in a head-to-head fight with the BJP and has the realistic chance as the party that can win the highest number of seats in such a grand alliance like the UPA.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across 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]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman