The Congress strategy to play second fiddle to the Samajwadi Party offers it a window of opportunity at a time of decline. The Akhilesh Yadav-Rahul Gandhi combine might have tapped into a new constituency
Indian politics currently seems to be a battle between a juggernaut and a footnote. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) constitute the historical juggernaut while a hesitant Congress currently seems to be reduced to a footnote. But politics never follows a predetermined script; there are always surprises, those little bundles of hope.
Politics teaches you, especially electoral politics with its wide repertoire of tactics, that you can indeed make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The recent happenings in Uttar Pradesh are an illustration of this. What was portrayed as a family quarrel actually worked well for the country. Instead of creating continuities in dynastic politics, a la Mulayam Singh, what we had was a meeting of two dynasts to create a fresh initiative. The Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) created an electoral understanding which is transforming a dynasts’ meeting into something new and effervescent.
A quarrel that was deeply implicated in the mire of U.P. politics involving Amar Singh and the usual epidemic of Yadav politicians suddenly appeared to become a spring cleaning exercise, an opportunity for youth to test their mettle against an older political style. True, the Congress is secondary, and still looks like it is playing second fiddle to the SP, yet its very secondariness has helped create a sliver of dynamism for a party that is seemingly moribund. The Congress is no longer just a monolith but a quilt patch of interests. U.P. politics proved the wisdom of Tolstoy that happy families are all alike, while unhappy families are each different in their own way. The Congress understood the unhappiness of Akhilesh Yadav and provided therapy for it. Second, one senses, and I admit it is not totally a rational feeling, that Rahul Gandhi promises to be more interesting and realistic with a touch of Sonia Gandhi and a dose of Priyanka Gandhi. A revitalised Mr. Gandhi might prove an interesting possibility in the future.
A generational change
There is also another point to note. Mr. Yadav and Mr. Gandhi might be an unlikely and even temporary duo but they suggest a need for freshness, for something untrammelled or reminiscent of the soiled politics of Mr. Shah and Mr. Singh. Their power to organise and destabilise is never in doubt, but often there is an occasional sense that they could be passé.
What is equally intriguing is the silence, or what I call the media secondariness, of Ms. Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. A shrewd politician, she has often said that her constituency does not read a newspaper or have much to do with the media. Yet, one senses that she is keeping her cards close to her chest, hoping to drive a ruthless bargain as the nature of the field changes.
One must admit that the logic of the family drama, which had all the power of a long-playing serial on TV, with the Yadav family, appearing like skeletons in a closet, mutes even the presence of Mr. Modi. For all his taunts asking the Opposition to fight him on the development plank, he almost becomes a side show. The Yadav-Gandhi combine, with the Congress as an active hyphen, might be the only answer, to show that U.P. is not restricted to an Amar-Amit politics. I admit that it is almost a symbolic opposition but as two youth, they might offer the possibility of a different era.
There is a shrewdness here on both sides. For Mr. Yadav, it is an attempt to throw off the burden of family politics. At one level, it appears like minor changes in messages and roles, but it at least offers the possibility of something new in politics. For once, the litany of complaint, contempt and mourning that surrounded Mr. Gandhi and the Congress has been muted. He has not quite pulled a magical rabbit out of the hat for the Congress, but he has created a smaller but still vibrant possibility. As some wise critics say in politics, second best is sometimes better. It also reveals Mr. Gandhi’s understanding that while the Gandhis might still be the first family in politics, and the Congress still wallows in secondariness and nostalgia, U.P. might lead to a tinkering of ideas, a rethinking in Congress politics. It is a question of perceptions, but perceptions are defining politics today.
The U.P. electoral battle is also creating a different nuance of distinctions and differentiations. Critical to this is what almost looks like a disjunction between development and governance. The demonetisation issue, as Mr. Gandhi has consistently emphasised, has devastated the poor in U.P. While Mr. Modi might sing hosannas to a digitalised, developed world, his performance scores on the governance issue are low. Oddly, thanks to stacks of well-placed advertisements, Mr. Yadav might score more. A governance plank of the new alliance is challenging the development promise of the BJP.
I think demonetisation has taken the shine off the BJP’s promise, creating a certain culture of anxiety. In fact, Mr. Gandhi criticises the ‘Make in India’ campaign saying that everything we use is actually made in China but when the SP-Congress combine comes to power, products will be made in Kanpur, Jhansi, Lucknow and Saharanpur. Listening to it, one literally wants to believe him. The two protagonists seem to fit in tandem, each striking a different note. Mr. Yadav is literally saying that the coalition will change the direction of the country’s politics. Mr. Gandhi, as a more acerbic campaigner, has almost created a little cameo role for himself and the Congress. There is a sense that Mr. Modi has demonetised the value of his own politics. In a society which valorises youth and change, he might begin sounding like yesterday’s newspaper. Suddenly Mr. Gandhi’s attacks on the BJP, from being inept, communicate a new confidence, a new possibility for the Congress. Maybe it might even redefine the Congress from the huge coalition of the Nehru-Indira years to a set of pragmatic contracts, making it more alert to the possibilities of survival and contestation.
One can read politics in U.P. in two ways. One can read it solely as a contestation of numbers, of a zero-sum game of victory and loss. But secondary readings are possible, suggesting that in the future these readings might emerge out of their current secondariness. One senses Mr. Modi and the BJP are dissatisfied that the SP drama is emerging out of the travails of a dismal family struggle. One senses a nervousness in Mr. Modi’s dismissal of Mr. Yadav and Mr. Gandhi. His promise of a Kesariya Sagar, of turning U.P. into a sea of electoral saffron sounds desperate.
Yet dismissing them as two princes in waiting, or invoking the history of the Congress, seems inadequate. Mr. Modi’s new acronyms of SCAM (Samajwadi, Congress, Akhilesh and Mayawati) and VIKAS [Vidyut (electricity), Kanoon (law and order) and Sadak (roads)] only sets the basis of an acrimonious battle. Akhilesh Yadav has his own coinage of SCAM as “Save Country from Amit Shah and Modi”.
It is not a question of who wins but which organisation gains and grows up. Here the Congress seems to score some points. Somewhere there is a sense of new moves and gambits. The battle of the old players — Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ms. Mayawati, Mr. Modi, Mr. Shah and Mr. Singh — suddenly appears distracted by this new coalition. By creating a youth manifesto, they might have tapped into the makings of a new agenda and constituency. I admit these are straws in the wind but the possibility of a weave is clear. The tragedy is that one hopes that politics does not become a choice between SCAMS, as Akhilesh Yadav has hinted. The scam will remain; the question is can the Congress move on with its acts of tinkering towards more promising constructive solutions?