The by-poll results on Wednesday delivered a massive jolt to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it was drubbed in the Lok Sabha constituencies – Gorakhpur and Phulpur – by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance. The BJP had swept Uttar Pradesh during the 2014 general elections by winning 71 seats, including Gorakhpur and Phulpur, out of 80. The party had also registered a resounding victory in the 2017 assembly elections in the state and racked up over 320 seats.
But the coming together of two big regional parties — SP and BSP — queered the pitch for the BJP this time.
If the UP shock wasn’t enough, the BJP was clobbered by Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar’s Araria constituency.
These defeats have set the alarm bells ringing for the BJP and the party needs to go to the drawing board and introspect the reasons leading to the debacle.
While the BJP’s contemplation and the SP-BSP combine’s euphoria are understandable, the jubilation amongst the Congress leaders, spokespersons and supporters is quite baffling. It was almost as if the Congress had galloped home in the elections.
However, the fact is that Congress candidates lost deposits in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur constituencies, and also came a cropper in Bhabua (Bihar) assembly by-poll (the only one that BJP won). A candidate’s election deposit is confiscated if he or she gets less than 10% of the votes polled.
One wonders what prompted Congress leaders to exult despite a disastrous result for the party. The answer is: the Congress is so blinded by its single-minded hatred and hostility towards the BJP that it completely condones its own decrepit state.
While cheering for parties such as SP and BSP (who came together to rout the BJP), the Congress seems to have forgotten that it is swiftly drifting towards irrelevance.
It has become increasingly clear that the stiff opposition to the BJP is coming from robust regional parties, such as SP, BSP, RJD, TMC and BJD — and not the Congress. At a time, when the Congress is trying to bring together regional parties under one umbrella and head a coalition for the 2019 General Elections, its unremitting defeats in state after state have severely ended its bargaining power.
Regional satraps like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal (AAP) and Sharad Pawar (NCP) have their own prime ministerial ambitions and hence are loathe to accept a weakened Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, as the leader of the coalition.
The irony is that the Congress completely discounts or forgets the fact that all these regional parties have grown at its expense. Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Sharad Pawar (NCP), Biju Patnaik (BJD) were all once Congress members before deserting the ‘grand old party’ and denting it by forming their own political outfits.
The TMC in West Bengal, the BJD in Odisha and the NCP in Maharashtra have reduced the Congress to being a marginal player in these states. Similarly, Lalu Prasad rode to power in Bihar in the 1990 Assembly elections by condemning the Congress for the 1989 Bhagalpur riots and for corruption.
Muslims and Dalits, who were the Congress’s core voters, shifted loyalties to Lalu thereafter. The SP and the BSP put the Congress to the sword in Uttar Pradesh in the early 1990s by wresting the Dalit and Muslim votes away, in the wake of Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Since then, in all these states, the Congress has remained a mere marginal player.
Despite being wiped out by the regional parties in several states, the Congress has continued to hobnob with them on various occasions in a bid to keep the BJP at bay.
For the Congress, the saffron party is their sole political nemesis, not the regional outfits which have drastically diminished its clout and reach. The surprising part is that the Congress has never made strenuous efforts to regain the lost ground in these states. The party seems happy to cede space for posterity, as long as the BJP is kept out of power.
It is this terminal inertia and misplaced priorities which have been instrumental in the Congress being the shadow of its former self. The party needs to realize that all the regional parties that have expanded at the Congress’s expense are also its political nemesis, along with the BJP.
These regional outfits have only used the Congress for their political gains and, in the process, continued to chip away at its base. Due to its lackadaisical approach, the party has also lost the credibility among the voters who no longer see it fit to be at the helm of affairs.
The BJP, on the other hand, is an entirely different entity. It has burgeoned exponentially in the last few years and is utterly ruthless and unrelenting in its pursuance of power.
Even in the states where it has formed the alliance with the regional parties, the BJP has not let its allies eat into its core vote bank. In fact, it continues to expand its base in those states rather than relying on its allies.
In Maharashtra, for example, the BJP was a junior alliance partner to Shiv Sena till five years ago but it continued to grow its cadre and influence in the state. In the last Assembly elections in Maharashtra, the BJP decided to contest alone and emerged as the single largest party. Shiv Sena is now relegated to being the junior partner.
It is the unflinching efforts and lofty ambition that have helped the BJP make inroads in the North-East where it had no presence till a few years ago.
The lesson for the Congress is to use the allies and regional parties to its own benefit rather than ceding space and being at their mercy. If it truly wants to be relevant in the Indian political landscape, the Congress must reinvigorate its cadre and adopt an audacious avatar to recapture power in all the states where it has yielded space to the regional parties. These regional outfits are as much its political nemesis as the BJP, if not more so.