When Sharad Pawar split the Congress in 1999, I recall even those who eventually joined his Nationalist Congress Party were furious.
A Shiv Sena-BJP government had been ruling Maharashtra and things had been going utterly wrong for the state – economically as well as politically. Businessmen were sick and tired of institutionalised extortion enforced by Shiv Sainiks, the state's borrowings had gone through the roof, all their programmes had gone for a toss and gangsters had a direct line to Mantralaya, the state secretariat.
Against all this, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had been up to some unsavoury antics and the people were completely turned off by the ruling alliance. “We do not need Sharad Pawar or Sonia Gandhi (who was a fledgling leader at the time) to win the elections," one of them told me. “All we need is a few more antics from Bal Thackeray and we will be home and dry.”
But when Pawar split the party they thought the division of secular votes would ensure that they would remain in the opposition for another term. The leaderless party, however, surprised itself by beating the Shiv Sena to first position with the NCP taking third position with around 56 seats and the BJP coming in at fourth. Their jaw dropping surprise at the time was no different from their utter shock on Friday at bettering their 2014 position in the assembly at a time when they were worse off and even more leaderless than they had been in 1999. One Congressman who had switched over to the NCP for economic compulsions had then told me in wonder, “I think there is only God between the Congress and its utter decimation. Nothing else explains why they should have done well at these elections.”
Two decades later that is truer of the Congress than it was in 1999. And not just in Maharashtra but also Haryana where the faction ridden Congress still posted a commendable result and emerged as the second largest party in the assembly. But while Congressmen might believe that theirs is God’s own party, I believe it is the leadership in the two states that ensured that they were not decimated at these elections.
In both states, the party was bitterly faction ridden but there were two leaders fighting bitterly for survival – Sharad Pawar and Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Of course, Pawar was leading the fight back for his own survival but for the first time in two decades of their troubled relationship, both Pawar and Congress leaders were on the same page, fighting as one and interested only in maximising their gains rather than pulling each other down.
In Haryana, Hooda had a similar goal of personal survival after differences with younger state leaders. But despite their instincts for survival, there was another factor, similar to the 1999 position of the Congress – the party needed only the BJP to make the beginning of a comeback.
Critics have been amazed that the BJP, though forming governments in both states, should have slipped in their massive mandate in barely four months. But reports of the agonised distress of people coming out of both states following the slowdown of the economy and the closure of factories and banks seem to be overtaking their euphoria over a Hindutva resurgence and bringing home to them that a temple was of no consequence when they were hungry and had no money to feed themselves, let alone offer bhogs to the gods. Moreover, what use is nationalism and minority bashing or going to war with Pakistan when their children have no jobs or do not have enough to eat?
To that extent, it is just as well that Modi won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with such a resounding majority. Congressmen, who were demoralised after that victory are now beginning to express relief that their party did not have to deal with the consequences of the Modi government’s messing up of the economy because it is unlikely that a mere minimum income guarantee as Rahul Gandhi had proposed would have been a panacea for all the ills.
Now with a resurgence in their poll prospects, they are beginning to believe four more years of the awfully incompetent Modi government will ensure the nation will never look to experimenting with majoritarianism to the exclusion of all else again.
Years ago, when the Rajiv Gandhi government was experimenting with both minority appeasement and majority equalisation, one wise old Congressman had said, “These issues of Hindu-Muslim fetch you nothing. In a country as poor and agrarian as India, you first need to address issues of Roti, Kapda aur Makaan. Then Bijli, Sadak aur Paani. Only after these basic needs of people are satisfied will they appreciate anything else.”
The people though did not appreciate that the previous UPA government had kept them fed, clothed and sheltered adequately over a decade and somehow got diverted towards Modi's majoritarian politics. But now that for the first time in their lives, they have no money to celebrate Diwali, they are making their displeasure felt through the ballot boxes.
And no matter how much of a spin Modi might put on the results – all he could gloat about was how the BJP had broken the convention of an anti-incumbency vote to return to power for a second time in both states – the fact remains that where there is hunger and impoverishment, there is no room for anything but desperately seeking a way out of their misery.
To that limited extent, people will sup with the devil if they have to and their desperation should have been obvious when failing to find assurances from multiple ministers in the Modi government, these self-declared Modi voters appealed to former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh when he campaigned in Mumbai to pull their irons out of the fire.
So, the Congress had not much to do to post a commendable result at these elections. Like the NCP man said all those years ago, they do not need any of their own leaders to rescue them from the doldrums. Then they heeded only Bal Thackeray. Now they need only Narendra Modi.