No Indian Prime Minister has enjoyed a position of greater dominance than Indira Gandhi did in March 1972. That month, Assembly elections were held in 13 states. The score was 13-0 to the Congress (I). Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruefully observed that while the Opposition had put up 2,700 individual candidates, the Congress had been able to field the same candidate in every seat across the country – Mrs Gandhi.
Indian politics seemed coterminous with one woman. There was no national Opposition worth the name. The socialists and communists were divided, Swatantra in a hospice, awaiting death, the Congress (O) humiliated in state after state, the Jan Sangh irrelevant in a scenario where the Congress and its Prime Minister were viewed as the embodiments of nationalism.
Fifty Marches later, after an electoral scorecard of 4-1, our current Prime Minister says that as goes 2022, so will 2024. Many of his opponents are inclined to agree. TV channels branded the elections “semi-finals”, implying that they only matter in the context of what is to come.
Although it may suit many people to pretend otherwise, elections are thermometers, not horoscopes. The year after Indira Gandhi’s political zenith, India’s economy was hit by the 1973 oil shock. 1974 saw the Bihar movement, 1975 the suspension of democracy. In January 1977, when elections were finally held, she and her son lost their own seats. That doesn’t mean her dominance in 1972 was illusory. Dominance in politics is always provisional, even as it usually seems otherwise.
What should concern us, then, is not what these results tell us about our political future, but about our present.
The BJP is no longer the insurgent party of 2013-2017 that expanded across India by deploying Narendra Modi as the embodied fusion of Hindutva and aspiration. The conceit of its campaigns in those years was that Modi would effectively rule every state himself, and acchhe din would follow. The BJP is now the establishment. No voter can regard it, or Modi, as something excitingly untried. Tripura in early 2018 is the last election in which an Opposition Chief Minister was replaced by one from the BJP. Hindutva remains, but aspiration has been put aside. The BJP’s new mix is Hindutva, “hyper-nationalism”, welfarism, and – proof that it is now establishment rather than insurgent – scare-mongering about the Opposition.
In the days after the results, it has been common to hear from dejected opponents of the BJP that our country is now past hope – that the seductions of bigotry will outweigh any amount of misgovernance. That it is the voters themselves who are at fault. On one level, it is difficult to dispute the depressing claim that there is simply no electorally significant section of Hindu society, at least in Hindi-speaking India, that is opposed to anti-Muslim bigotry. Secularism per se has no constituency. But on another, the “elect a new people” argument fails because elections involve choices, and no one is entitled to the voters’ trust. The re-election of an incumbent can just as easily be a rejection of the challenger as an endorsement of the government’s record. In UP, the BJP faced an opponent whose own record, under Yadavs father and son, did not require great skill to weaponize. In three other states, they faced the Congress.
Under the de facto leadership of two sibling dilettantes, the Congress did not come close to unseating two of the least popular incumbent governments in the country. In Punjab, the siblings decided, not without reason, to unseat a sitting Chief Minister. They also decided to empower Navjot Singh Sidhu, allegedly on the grounds that if they did not, he would join AAP. As political strategy, this was the equivalent of the Devas volunteering to drink all the Halahala on the grounds that if they didn’t, the Asuras would.
Against the Gandhi siblings’ many claimed virtues can be set two liabilities that are, at this point, incontestable. The first is that they are part-time politicians. Rahul made his political debut in 2004 and Priyanka (as a campaigner) in 1999. Two decades later, neither appears able to commit to the life of politics. There is nothing unobjectionable in this. If anything, the dilemma between life and politics suggests the Gandhis may be too normal for the latter. Politics, at least in India, requires monomania. The politicians who have successfully defeated or held off Modi’s BJP are, without exception, full-time. The second, as shown by the Sidhu episode, is their judgment. This is shown, too, in their choice of advisers – not garden-variety sycophants, but cynical grifters whose main activity is undermining any efforts at Congress revival. If the Gandhi siblings merely lack the capacity to revive the party, some of their advisers actually appear to fear revival – because it would cost them their jobs.
In 2004 and again in 2009, Rahul Gandhi declined to take up ministerial office. The putative explanation was that he was too busy strengthening the party organisation, especially in Uttar Pradesh. By 2022, the Congress’ vote-share in UP stood at 2.3%. Yet the Congress is diseased far beyond the limitations of the Gandhi siblings. Its culture was exemplified by Harish Rawat giving a winnable seat to his daughter- who won – and being defeated himself. This was a morbid re-enactment of Siddaramaiah’s choices in Karnataka in 2018. In both cases, the Congress’ would-be Chief Ministerial candidate, in a tight race, placed dynastic considerations before all else. From the top down, the Congress now stands for family before party, before country, before self.
Akhilesh Yadav has also, not unfairly, been characterised as a part-time politician. But unlike the Congress, he can take plenty of heart from an election that, due to the narrowness of the SP’s social base, was essentially unwinnable. In one campaign, he has made UP politics bipolar for the first time in the state’s history. The biggest criticism that can be made of his approach is that he prioritised caste-engineering over the construction of a broad-based narrative around unemployment and living standards. But he now has a greater opportunity than any other individual to shape the medium-term future of UP politics. That future may well turn on whether he now works full-time, and whether he can craft that more universal narrative.
On both counts, he – and every Opposition party – can instructively look to AAP’s victory in Punjab.
Arvind Kejriwal provokes some Congress supporters to a loathing that exceeds even their hatred of Modi. He does so because the 2011 India Against Corruption movement is seen as having enabled Modi’s rise, and because his electoral strategy always involves directly targeting the Congress’ base first. He is often called the “RSS B-team”, or variants thereof. But his concessions to Hindu nationalism – his support of the abrogation of Article 370, or his reciting of the Hanuman Chalisa on the campaign trail – reveal not a closet Sanghi, but an instrumental politician. He is no more or less secular than the Rajiv Gandhi who opened the locks of the Babri Masjid, or his “janeu dhari” son.
Step outside the royalist echo chamber, however, and pay attention to what people in the BJP actually think, and those who deride AAP would learn that the BJP regards the Gandhi siblings as an asset, and Arvind Kejriwal as a genuine threat. He can match Modi or Mamata Banerjee for ambition and hunger. And, uniquely among Opposition leaders, he has built a narrative that can work across states, one that is defined assertively, not reactively. In the short run, Kejriwal is hampered by the – rather understandable – suspicion with which other Opposition leaders regard him. In his ambition, in the extent to which his party is a cult of personality, they see not a trustworthy partner, but a centrist Modi. But work with him or not, they would do well to absorb his belief that the Opposition is neither doomed to defeat nor entitled to victory.
The advantages the BJP holds in the electoral democracy of 2022 – financial, organisational, structural – don’t even approach those possessed by the Congress in 1972, or 1985. These elections were not a semi-final; and there is nothing final about them, either.
(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.