Historical events move at an uneven speed, and never along a straight path. But when they begin to move faster, they often reveal both their direction and destination. And, with history’s quickened movements, sometimes even a week is all it takes to make a nation aware of the big change looming on the horizon.
The third week of March will be recorded in the history of 2018 as the time when Indian politics suddenly surged forward to indicate that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections would produce a mighty change. This is because of two landmark developments that took place within the span of five days. One was the electoral earthquake in Uttar Pradesh. In the other, Rahul Gandhi, the young new president of the Congress, sounded the bugle for change at the battle-ready party’s plenary in New Delhi. Together, these two events have made both common people and political pundits think that Narendra Modi could well become a single-term Prime Minister, paving the way for a non-BJP government at the Centre post-2019.
On March 14, the decisive defeat of the ruling BJP, in the three Lok Sabha by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, drilled a big hole in the seeming invincibility of Narendra Modi’s government at the Centre. Normally, the loss of just three seats need not make a party, especially one that had won 282 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, vulnerable. However, this defeat was not ordinary. Gorakhpur and Phulpur were, respectively, the constituencies of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya.
They had both won with huge margins in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the Modi wave had helped the BJP bag 73 out of the 80 seats in the state. They had subsequently resigned to enter the Vidhan Sabha, thereby necessitating bypolls to the Lok Sabha. The state had given another big boost to Modi when, in the Assembly polls in 2017, the BJP won 325 out of 403 seats, the highest ever in the state’s history.
This suddenly made Yogi Adityanath so popular (of course, only among BJP supporters) that he was even perceived as a vote-catcher in Gujarat, Kerala and Karnataka. Indeed, some in Hindutva circles even began to see him as the BJP’s next prime ministerial candidate, post-Modi.
Therefore, Yogi’s abject failure to ensure the BJP’s victory in his own fortress has a significance far beyond a single constituency or a single state. First, it is the clearest indication yet that the Modi wave is well truly over in UP. This was also evident in last year’s Assembly elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the BJP managed to retain its government only with extreme difficulty. Second, Modi and his party can be defeated in 2019 if major Opposition parties come together, and coordinate their electoral strategies. And since Modi has been shown to be vulnerable both in Gujarat and in India’s most populous state, which had made the biggest contribution to his phenomenal victory in 2014, the people in the rest of the country have suddenly begun to see that change is possible — nay, inevitable — in New Delhi next year.
But change, almost always, requires two conditions to be fulfilled. It is not enough for the people, who are the real and supreme change-agents in a democracy, to be dissatisfied with the incumbent government. They must also have hope and confidence in the alternative. This is where Rahul Gandhi’s emergence, at last week’s plenary session of the Congress, as a contender to Modi assumes significance. Never before in the past four years has the Congress party looked so re-energised and ready to go to battle with the BJP as it is today. There is no doubt left now in the minds of Congress workers and supporters across the length and breadth of the country as to who can, or who should, lead the party in the next general elections. After all, a major reason for the party’s worst ever debacle in 2014 was the fact that the Congress army had entered the electoral battlefield without a general commanding, motivating and guiding its soldiers. This will not be the case in 2019.
There is no doubt left now in the minds of Congress workers and supporters across the length and breadth of the country as to who can, or who should, lead the party in the next general elections
One of Rahul Gandhi’s major initial success is that he has galvanised the Congress party at the grassroots. Those who watched his concluding speech on the third day of the plenum have surely not failed to notice that he received the loudest applause when he asserted, with uncharacteristic candour in the party’s recent traditions, that the “Congress organisation has to be changed” and that he was determined to “break the wall” between leaders and grassroots workers. He also expressed his resolve to effect a generational change at all levels in the party organisation. Due respect will be shown to senior functionaries, but they have to make way for younger, more dynamic leaders of tomorrow.
Rahul has thus boldly risen to the challenge of revitalising the Congress. But many more stiff challenges lie ahead.
It is obvious to one and all that the Congress alone cannot provide an alternative to the BJP in 2019. Only a strong anti-BJP alliance can dislodge the Modi government. However, what is also crystal clear is that no such alliance, without the Congress heading it, can be a viable alternative. The people are bound to see any prospect of a government of the so-called Third Front as far worse than the incumbent BJP government. Political instability would be far more disastrous for today’s India than it was in the 1990s, given the complex external situation on the one hand and, on the other, the worrisome internal divisions in our society, many of them created by the Hindutva forces.
Therefore, Rahul has to focus on two tasks in the run-up to the next LS elections. One, he should infuse hope and confidence among Indian people, especially the youth, of all castes, communities and regions that the Congress has a vision and agenda for India’s governance and development far superior to that of the BJP. Two, he should forge strong alliance partnerships — both state-specific and at the national level — so that the Congress-led UPA III can win a safe and secure majority in Parliament to govern India upto 2024 and beyond.
Is it possible? Certainly. With no pro- BJP wave anywhere in the country, Bharat is indeed ready to become Modi-mukt.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based socio-political activist