The BJP is as subtle as a kick in the backside. It has lost no time in proving to the world that every word Rahul Gandhi said in Cambridge about the decline of Indian democracy was true, and then some. It has since then not allowed him to speak in Parliament, had him convicted in what is clearly a command performance, disqualified him and expelled him from Parliament with an alacrity reserved only for Opposition legislators. In the process, it has also obtained two collateral benefits on the side- ensured the passing of the Finance Bill without any discussion in 12 minutes flat (perhaps a record in our history), and stone- walled anyone discussion on Mr. Modi’s friend.
It is difficult to second guess psychoneurotics, so one doesn’t really know the strategy behind the party’s extreme moves, but I don’t for a moment buy the theory that the BJP is in panic mode. The BJP never panics, it just becomes more devious and ruthless: it just raises the stakes in what the bond traders in Wall Street call Liar’s Poker. The action against Rahul Gandhi is just part of its strategy to take out all opposition leaders, one by one, and ensure an Opposition Mukt Bharat even BEFORE the 2024 general elections. Any party can win an election, but how many can do that even before the votes are cast ? Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Akhilesh, YSR and Navin Patnaik have been silenced into various stages of pharyngitis; Kejriwal, Tejaswi, Soren are already in the coils of the anaconda. Nitish Kumar remains an electoral enigma and can, like a grass-hopper, jump either way. Rahul Gandhi was the only national leader of stature who, like Oliver Twist, would not abide by this script and so Mr. Bumble had to wield the stick.
For once, however, the BJP may have miscalculated, led astray by its arrogance born of absolute power and sense of invincibility. The BJP under Mr. Modi is no longer just a political party, it is now a soldiery, a militia, an army constantly waging war, during and between elections. Governance, or the lack of it, is a side-show. But even in war there are some time-tested rules; one of them was stated by Napoleon Bonaparte: “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Mr. Modi obviously thinks he can not only out-Herod Herod but also teach Napoleon a thing or two, so he has continued with his shock and awe tactics. Perhaps for too long.
He may have finally over-reached himself in his quest for the thousand year Hindu reich, believing in what Robert Browning did NOT say: “a man’s reich must exceed his grasp or what’s a havan for?” The latest instance of the hounding of Rahul Gandhi appears to have finally convinced the coy PMs-in-waiting in the Opposition that the moment of reckoning has arrived: they now either hang together or they hang separately, in various jails in BJP ruled states, not their luxurious farm houses. They appear to have finally realised that to become Prime Minister the sine-qua-non is to stay out of jail, and the only way to ensure that is to take the keys of the kingdom away from the jailor. So they are coming together now, albeit reluctantly, like the pack ice on the Arctic seas when winter approaches. It remains to be seen whether the ice will form into an all embracing ice sheet or break up into individual floes, all going their separate ways to certain oblivion. I am not holding my breath in the interim.
The BJP’s second blunder is is in retaining their delusion that Rahul Gandhi is still a “Pappu.” He never was one, but they had manufactured this canard with the help of a prostituted media and had managed to sell it to the people. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has shattered that misconception to smithereens; the speech in Parliament on Modani and the calibrated concerns about India’s democracy expressed in the UK have further demolished that lie. Not only is the old Pappu gone, I think vast sections of even erstwhile BJP supporters (not Bhaktiveers, mind you) are now grudgingly conceding that Rahul Gandhi has the moral underpinning to be a leader, the tenacity to fight for his vision, and the courage of his convictions. He is the only Opposition leader who has been consistently attacking the govt. for its Tughlaqi decisions, corruption, lies, tyranny and neglect of national security: he has not been blowing hot and cold like the others whose politics are dictated more by the shadows of the ED and CBI than any ideology or principles. He stands head and shoulders above any other Opposition leader, and the ice floes are beginning to gravitate towards him. Even the sold-out media and polling agencies are beginning to concede that his popularity graph is rising.
Modi-Shah appear to have misread this changing public perception and are still going by their old toolkit. Having more or less demolished most of the other regional satraps, or at least intimidated them into silence, they have now let loose their heavy artillery on the one remaining Opposition redoubt- Rahul Gandhi himself: sink him and 2024 is theirs. It’s a bit like, once you take out the escorting destroyers you can then target the aircraft carrier itself at leisure. But the BJP has made one mistake- the carrier is no longer where it once was, it has moved on, it’s a moving target and the BJP guns can’t find the range any longer.
Pappu has moved on in the last six months and, rather than being a force that divided the opposition in the past, he now has tremendous potential for uniting them. The BJP’s overkill of convicting and expelling him from Parliament has made this process easier. It has compelled the media to focus on him, and in the last two weeks he has received more prime time coverage than even the Prime Minister, notwithstanding Aroon Poorie’s cringe-worthy genuflections to the Supreme Leader at his annual Conclave recently. Even more, this united show of Opposition unity may even induce the judiciary to straighten its spine a bit and to begin to take on an executive which has been riding rough shod over it ever since 2014. For the judiciary has a vital role to play if democracy is to survive beyond 2024. It is, paradoxically, both part of the problem and the solution.
BUT- and this is the most important part- the Congress must eschew the notion that it can now take on the BJP on its own. It cannot. It needs the others, just as they need him. The humility of the Bharat Jodo Yatra must now translate into the real-politic of the elections: the sharing of turf with others, the admission of weakness in certain states, the willingness to take a back seat in those states. The Congress is a national party, yes, but it is also a regional party in vast swathes of the country, and must accept this. It must concede, for example, that Samajwadi party has to be the lead player in U.P, TMC in Bengal, JDU-RJD in Bihar, KCR in Telangana, and so on, and do a seat sharing in these states on THEIR terms.
The others need to realise that the Congress is the largest regional party in the country, and must reciprocate the sentiments where the Congress is the stronger force. By my reckoning it is the primary opposition to the BJP in nine states- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Goa, Assam, Gujarat and Karnataka, which provide 190 seats to the Lok Sabha. It should keep its powder dry for these states, and if it does well in them (last time it lost 95% of these seats to the BJP) it will automatically emerge as the natural leader of any post election coalition. It should not bank on any “sympathy” vote: even if it gets some, this is not likely to resurrect its fortunes on the scale it did Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s in 1980. At that time the Congress was still a formidable force with 154 seats and 35% of the national vote; today it is down to 52 with just about 20% of the vote. The Congress can certainly improve its tally now but the regional parties are the key.
The BJP has already thrown the kitchen sink at Rahul Gandhi, what more can it do to “neutralise” him ? Expedite the defamation case against him in Bihar? Put the National Herald case on a fast track? Put him in jail? Its bag of dirty tricks is running on empty and its tool kit now looks a bit obsolete, repetitive and jaded. One can sense a certain apprehension and desperation in the BJP’s ranks. In fact, Mr. Modi has a monumental dilemma on his hands: he has to decide whether Rahul Gandhi is more dangerous in jail or on the streets. He would not have forgotten Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s comeback in similar circumstances. To be sure, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/