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Politics

As State Elections Loom, Congress Is Learning the Value of Keeping Its Flock Together

There have been very few defections from the Congress this time, especially in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which could mean that leaders there do not perceive a significantly bleak future for the Congress for now.

Raipur: BJP president Amit Shah has a very clear head for realpolitik. It was revealed in one of the Manthan  sessions he had with Chhattisgarh party office bearers recently. He is believed to have advised the local unit to become more accommodating of leaders who come from other parties, especially the Congress, as the ultimate aim is to finish opposition off forever – either by absorbing them or by crushing them.

“The Congress is alive only in states where the BJP is the principal party. Look at MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka or Maharashtra. It feeds off the BJP. In all other states like UP, Bihar, southern states, Bengal, etc., regional parties have absorbed Congressmen who realised that they were on a sinking ship,” he told an awed audience. The thrust of his argument is that the rise of regional aspirations has meant that people do not find the Congress alone capable of addressing it anymore. It first happened in Tamil Nadu, then spread to Andhra, etc., but the real desertion from the Congress became a deluge just before and following the Mandal Commission implementation in late 1980s, when entire swathes of aspirational OBCs and Dalits in UP and Bihar went with the RJD, the BSP and the SP.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: Is Political Change Possible If Parties Keep Fielding the Same Candidates?

Most importantly, he told his audience that the Muslims will remain with the Congress where possible but will join any regional combination which they think will look after their interests or is likely to win, even if temporarily. The TMC in Bengal is an example as is the AIUDF in Assam. This has meant further erosion of the Congress base. The regionalisation suits the BJP as it has the organisation to project itself as the only national party with the interest of the majority in mind. He pointed out that the socialist leaders who held sway during the 1960s and the 1970s have more or less made peace and joined the BJP in most places.

The context established, he came to the real point of his argument. “The party has remained cadre-based for far too long, and that has been one of the difficulties in absorbing leaders who have a good following independently as the established units have failed to respond to ‘outsiders’. Where we have been in power, we have also failed to crush the Congress leaders who were perceived as corrupt. We have not taken up their cases and they have gotten off lightly,” he is believed to have said. Leaders like V.C. Shukla and Arvind Netam, who had risen to national prominence, had joined the BJP with their supporters but were not made very comfortable, resulting in their returning to the Congress.

Shah’s strong-arm theory of politics has been useful in elections like the recent one in Gujarat, where it managed to quell a rising opposition to the BJP.

A lot has changed since then. After the advent of Modi-Shah, several Congress leaders – from Jagdimbika Pal and Rita Bahuguna in UP to Narayan Rane in Maharashtra, Vishwajeet Rane in Goa to Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam and almost the entire Congress unit in Tripura, to cite only a few examples – have not only come into the BJP but have been absorbed and given important political positions and assignments.

Chhattisgarh may be going the Maharashtra-NCP way, and that may be to the BJP’s advantage. The emergence of Ajit Jogi-led Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) and its alliance with the BSP has meant that, for the first time, a cohesive regional party has emerged in the state which is laying claim to at least 20% of the votes. It is made up almost entirely of deserting, ambitious Congressmen. If it does well and the Congress does not win Chhattisgarh, then by the time next elections are held in 2024, JCC will be a force to reckon with and the Jogis may emerge in the footsteps of Pawar and Mamata with their own regional base and claims to at least 30% seats carved out of the Congress. This will naturally please the BJP.

The BJP appears to be at an added advantage in states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where it has ruled more or less continuously for the past two decades or more. Anyone between the age of 15 and 35 is not likely to have seen any other chief minister or ruling party. For this generation to identify with the BJP is easier, especially in the face of an inert opposition like the Congress, which has shown singular lack of drive to unseat it. This generation is also free of post-Independence hardship stories. For the remaining, Shah’s strong-arm theory of politics has been useful in elections like the recent one in Gujarat, where it managed to quell a rising opposition to the BJP.

Also read: Congress Leaders in Chhattisgarh Have Been Painting a Rosy Picture for Rahul Gandhi

The lessons in history which the Modi-Shah duo dole out intermittently, wherein Nehru takes a fair share of blame for perceived lack of development since Independence, is also meant to influence a generation of voters who have little or no contact with the Congress of yore. Most people who end up defending the Congress or the pre-BJP history of the nation on social media, electronic media or public spaces, are well past forty. If they happen to be committed Congressmen, they are past fifty. That leaves a very wide impressionable field for the BJP, which hopes to continue targeting the youth and colouring their thought processes. The idea obviously extends to universities, local bodies and school education.

That would mean that most bases have been well covered by the BJP in the present round of elections. But surprisingly, there have been very few defections from the Congress this time, especially in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. It could only mean that leaders there do not perceive a significantly bleak future for the Congress for now. Unlike the North East, where a combination of mismanagement and anti-incumbency meant that the Congress has been washed out, it still has some time left in its last remaining bastions. But only if it is alert to what is happening around it. Otherwise, Shah will either pick or crush.

Neeraj Mishra has covered elections in central India for more than two decades.