Before we know, the next 2024 Lok Sabha polls will be upon us. The thought should generate a frisson of excitement and expectation by now but it hasn’t. The BJP is sitting pretty. Its domination is virtually unchallenged. The question is not whether the BJP will make it a third time at the Centre but what the Opposition’s game plan is, if it has one. The Congress, as the only other national party, notionally ought to head an Opposition coalition and take on the BJP-NDA’s might. The Opposition is an army of disparate forces, without a commander-in-chief to lead the squads to the battleground. The Congress is headless, without a full-time president. Sonia Gandhi gives an impression that she’s a reluctant interim president. Her political heir, Rahul Gandhi, is unfocussed and more intent on consolidating his position without a terra firm to walk upon, steady and confident. The group of 23 dissidents waits in the wings presumably to strike at an opportune moment. The handful of states where the Congress is in power is rocked by dissensions, caused by intra-party conflicts and fuelled by the “high command”. There are visibly no new territories for the Congress to lay siege on.
Where does hope for the Opposition lie? All is not lost because if the gaze is set some distance away, there are two regional leaders, both chief ministers, who have manifest national aspirations and ambitions and are focussed on realising them, despite the daunting odds. Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, the West Bengal and Delhi chief ministers, are in a crowd of regional chieftains, who have their sights set upon the Centre, despite the limitations within which they operate. With the constraints, Mamata and Kejriwal have signalled their intent to not remain confined within their geographical turfs. What are the factors that propel the ambitions of these chief ministers and enable them to score over Rahul Gandhi?
The killer instinct: Some would say it’s audacious of Kejriwal, who technically presides over a quasi-state with a truncated jurisdiction, to punch above his weight. But there he is, out to have a second serious shot at Punjab despite a poor showing in the 2017 elections, Goa, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, all of which will vote in 2022. Kejriwal has also secured a foothold in Gujarat, the other poll-bound state. He’s out to prove that he is no fly-by-night operator because he has unveiled an agenda in Uttarakhand and UP, embracing a gamut of populist promises. For the employment-starved hill state, Kejriwal promised a “har ghar rozgar” (jobs for every home) programme, Rs 5,000 monthly stipend for unemployed youths, creating 10,000 government jobs in a six-month period, 80% reservation for Uttarakhand residents in government jobs and the constitution of a ministry of employment and migration.
Since Kejriwal has embraced Hindutva as an article of faith, albeit in a benign form, he also claimed he would make Uttarakhand a global spiritual capital. Tall promises? At least, they reflect a method to reach the goalpost.
For UP, the Aam Admi Party (AAP)’s goody bag has free power for farmers, 300 units of free power for the others and setting aside pending dues.
Mamata has carved out the northeast for expansion. TMC’s foray into Tripura, formerly a Left Front bastion, has been noted by the BJP. Desperate to re-establish its salience, the CPI(M) got into the act and engaged in street fights with the BJP once the TMC got combative.
On the other hand, Rahul, with sibling Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, are bent on giving the Congress chief ministers a hard time and probably risk losing the only states the party has.
Legatee versus political entrepreneurs: Thanks to the BJP’s relentless campaign, “dynast” is a bad word. Rahul is a legatee, a fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi. Pedigree is no longer a cherished attribute at a time when the discourse is about initiative, enterprise and hard work. Who can deny that Mamata and Kejriwal are by-products of a transformed ambience while Rahul is an inheritor. Rahul never had to fight for a place under the Congress’s sun but who knows what the future holds? Mamata broke away from the Congress, rejecting Sitaram Kesri’s leadership, launched the TMC, and kept at it despite losing elections to the Left Front, and savoured success. As a political entrepreneur she knows she alone has to save and build on the political capital which the TMC accumulated. Therefore, one hint of a major threat from the BJP and a setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were enough to send Mamata scurrying for damage control. She proved she could rise and confront the BJP’s might when required.
Although minted out of the Anna Hazare school of “activism”, Kejriwal realised mainstream politics was his bread-and-butter and he embraced it without ado. He has not replicated his back-to-back success in the Delhi elections so far but nothing stops his sorties.
Use of copycat BJP tactics: Mamata and Kejriwal ape the BJP without qualms because they reckon that the Congress is yesterday and the BJP is now and tomorrow. They have used BJP’s tactics to their advantage unlike Rahul, who too emulates the ruling party but never pulls it off. Kejriwal has not veered away from the soft Hindutva path he set foot on even if the strategy might cost the Muslim votes in the next election. Mamata has done to the BJP what the BJP did to her before the Bengal assembly polls: hollow out the party’s innards by depleting its bench strength. If the TMC lost Suvendu Adhikari to the BJP, Mamata avenged the loss by weaning away four BJP MLAs and its MP Babul Supriyo.
Rahul tried the “janeu” (sacred thread worn by Brahmins) and temple peregrination acts during elections but the cost outweighed the returns.
Spirit of adventure and audacity: What else but political adventurism and audacity take Kejriwal to Punjab, Goa and other states and Mamata to the northeast. It’s an adventure with forethought. Mamata roped in Sushmita Dev, the former Congress MP and ironically a close aide of Rahul, to enlarge TMC’s footprints in Assam. Rahul sticks to Kerala, his new comfort zone, and seems to have even abandoned UP, the Nehru-Gandhi’s former fief.
Being proactive and reactive: Mamata and Kejriwal compelled the BJP to react to their moves, statements and policies; Rahul is reactive and often becomes an object of derision.
Managing intra-party dissensions: Mamata remained unfazed when she lost her closest confidants to the BJP. She had only herself to steer through stormy times. The AAP was shaken with serious factionalism before Kejriwal manipulated the political thicket to assume a position of supremacy. Both the leaders proved themselves in elections and silenced their in-house traducers.
In a running battle against the Congress’s “Old Guard”, Rahul ended up making more enemies than seeking allies. Most importantly, he has not passed the litmus test to establish oneself in power: Proving he can deliver the votes to the Congress.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.)