Defeat infuses hope

Odd moods of vanquished & victor

By Sanjay K. Jha
  • Published 19.12.17

New Delhi: This is a defeat for the Congress that demolished Narendra Modi's invincibility. A defeat that infused hope into the loser and insecurity into the victor. This is an electoral defeat but a political victory for the Congress.

Senior Congress leaders are disappointed because they smelt victory on the ground but couldn't find it on electronic voting machines (EVMs). They are, however, not dejected as even the EVMs relayed a message of change on the ground. A change that showed the Congress's ascendance and the BJP's downslide.

Rahul Gandhi raided the forbidden territory and drew blood. The belief that Gujarat is Modi's impregnable fortress lies in tatters. None of the BJP's ardent admirers claimed that this was a positive mandate for development; they publicly acknowledged on television channels that Modi artfully exploited emotive issues like Mani Shankar Aiyar's " neech" remark and Manmohan Singh's fictional plotting with Pakistan.

While many key strategists privately talked of suspicions about EVM manipulation, particularly pointing to the Surat, Mehsana and Rajkot seats, others felt a resurgent Congress would definitely be in a position to mount a more formidable challenge in other states if Modi could barely survive in Gujarat with all his might and tricks.

"Even if the EVM factor is ignored, we created a real scare for Modi in his fief, we will hit him hard elsewhere," said a Rahul aide.

Rahul, who finally took over as Congress president two days after the completion of voting in Gujarat, appeared to have earned legitimacy for his elevation by running a powerful campaign in the difficult state. No Congress leader argued on the day of his coronation that the Gujarat outcome would undermine his stature. A victory would certainly have enhanced his stature but he has established himself as the main challenger to Modi in 2019.

While the Congress is destined to sink or swim with him, Rahul would have forfeited his right to lead the Opposition had he demonstrated any timidity in the Gujarat battle. He showed the ability to forge coalitions and mounted a fierce campaign, raising expectations across the country about an electoral upset that was unthinkable a few months ago. A decimation of the Congress that Amit Shah's goal of 150 seats would have brought about could have rendered the future battles foregone conclusions.

The cut-throat competition in Gujarat has opened up the polity, inspiring the Congress to pose a greater challenge in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, the states going to the polls in 2018. Unlike in Gujarat, where the Congress didn't have a credible face, it has strong local leaders in at least the big states of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Modi advantage too will be far less in these states than Gujarat.

Rahul's own reaction didn't reflect any despondency. He tweeted: "My Congress brothers and sisters, you have made me very proud. You are different than those you fought because you fought anger with dignity. You have demonstrated to everyone that the Congress's greatest strength is its decency and courage."

He also congratulated the BJP for victories in both states and thanked people for showing love for him. "The Congress party accepts the verdict of the people and congratulates the new governments in both states. I thank the people of Gujarat and Himachal with all my heart for the love they showed me."

The emphasis on "decency" and "anger" clearly indicate that Rahul believes the Prime Minister salvaged the situation in the last minute by raising issues that were not linked to the people's core concerns.

One of Rahul's aides told The Telegraph: "If a Prime Minister tells people that the former Prime Minister was conspiring in connivance with Pakistan, it is bound to have an impact. Some people can see through the façade but many would be deeply worried. We feel helpless if the Prime Minister stoops so low."

While those involved in the Gujarat election admit some wrong candidates were selected in areas going to the polls in the second phase, the Prime Minister's emotional ploys did make a difference. The Congress has, however, taken solace from the critical message that the voters had begun to see them with a renewed perspective. After all, this was not a howling success that the Modi-Shah duo hawked all along.