Does Rahul want to win?

Updated April 02, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

ON the eve of the Indian elections, Rahul Gandhi says he would fight from two constituencies and not just one. The move has surprised his supporters and annoyed the communists. His competitors in Kerala’s forested and ecologically fragile Wayanad constituency are the Left Front and the electorate is largely Muslim.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party has described the decision as a sign of fright now that Rahul is fighting from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and faraway Kerala too.

It is anybody’s guess whether Rahul has painted himself into a corner. He has been advised badly on the critical question of forming alliances. Had he followed his better instincts, he would be the hero of an invincible secular and democratic alternative to Prime Minister Modi. But that was not to be.

It is obvious he is in a quandary and has put at risk the opposition’s chances by appearing to be either insensitive or helpless, which would be worse, in assembling a formidable alliance. It is important to understand how the die is cast and what are the challenges the opposition now faces.

Given fragile national votes in his kitty, which may have increased moderately, Rahul Gandhi requires allies to garner the other 45pc anti-or non-BJP votes.

When Rajiv Gandhi sat in the opposition in 1989, the Congress had 197 seats and 40 per cent votes — significantly more than the 31pc than Modi has, albeit with a higher tally of seats.

Rajiv was invited to take oath as prime minister, but he refused. It was a moral decision as he had lost the majority, but also because it was a big comedown from the 404 seats he commanded in the preceding Lok Sabha, with a vote tally of 49pc, which even Nehru never got.

V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal was a distant second with 18pc votes and 143 seats. He became prime minister with the help of the Hindu right and communists. The Bharatiya Janata Party had gained from two seats in 1984 to 85 in 1989. However, its improved vote stood at 12pc.

It is significant that in the 2019 elections, the BJP is being tipped to get 190 seats on a good show and about 140 on the lower end of the estimate — well below the number that Rajiv had when he chose to forgo his chance.

These are early days and a more realistic surmise could be made after the first round of polls are held on April 11th, accounting for 91 of 545 seats. Currently, the Congress is not tipped to get more seats than the BJP. But there are anti-BJP regional parties that could (together with the Congress) offer a solid alternative.

The two Manmohan Singh governments were formed with paltry numbers. He had got 145 against the BJP’s 138 in 2004 and 206 seats against the BJP’s 116 in 2009. But he had allies. Note that Singh’s seats and vote share both went up in his second innings despite his choosing not to go for any military action against Pakistan for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. That’s not an encouraging fact for Modi’s present militarist pitch, seen as high on optics, low on yield.

What is Rahul Gandhi looking at? Prime Minister Modi won 282 seats in 2014 without allies. Just 272 would give him a majority. His party’s modest vote share went up to 336 seats and 35pc votes with allies. That, however, means 65pc voters are still waiting to be mobilised (not in theory alone) to cast a decisive blow against Mr Modi in the present contest.

But there’s a problem. Between 2009 and 2014, the Congress vote share dipped by 9pc and stands at the lowest ever of less than 20pc. The Congress won a dismal 44 seats — so low that there could no official leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, for which a party needs 55 seats at current count.

Given fragile national votes in his kitty, which may have increased moderately, Rahul Gandhi requires allies to garner the other 45pc anti-or non-BJP votes.

Ideally, the Congress should have gone cap in hand to all and sundry who could help turn the tide of state tyranny to put together an unassailable alliance. His aunt and Indira Gandhi’s alienated first cousin, Nayantara Sehgal, was pleading at a meeting in Delhi the other day to unite against the BJP — she used the word ‘fascism’ to describe the state of affairs.

At 92, and appearing fit and articulate at the meeting hosted by former civil servants and retired military officers, she recalled how she started an avalanche of civilian protests against Modi by returning her official awards for literature.

To his credit, Rahul Gandhi also describes the current political climate as fascism. Only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in its manifesto has refused to use the description, probably worried it would then have to explain why it held the hand of the fascists in 1977 (with Janata Party) and 1989 (supporting V.P. Singh, who was flanked by the BJP on the other side).

After a Congress meeting in Modi’s home state of Gujarat on March 12, Rahul Gandhi raised hopes of an all-embracing opposition alliance when he tweeted: “On the anniversary of Gandhiji’s historic Dandi March, the Congress Working Committee in Ahmedabad resolved to defeat the RSS/ BJP ideology of fascism, hatred, anger & divisiveness. No sacrifice is too great in this endeavour; no effort too little; this battle will be won.”

Excellent prospects, but where is the promised sacrifice? Congress fielded an ambitious 465 candidates in 2014 and got its lowest tally. Could the candidates not be reduced to a realistic 250 to accommodate allies? Forget sacrifices, Congress has offended match winners like Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee. He has undermined Arvind Kejriwal, and now has poked the Left Front in the eye. Does Rahul really want to win? There may not be another chance.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2019