Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi (Photo: Getty Images)
IN THE HEAT and excitement of elections in three heartland states and Telangana, the poll in Mizoram remained under the radar. The election in the northeastern state was over on November 7 itself. The mandate of an impressive 80.66 per cent voter turnout remained locked in the recesses of EVMs till December 4, a day after votes to elections in the other states were counted. It was only when an exit poll predicted a clear majority for the lesser known Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) that political pundits sat up and took note. The additional suspense as counting was put off by a day due to church services in the Christian-majority state only made the results more startling. ZPM did win a majority, the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) was unceremoniously ousted from office, with Chief Minister Zoramthanga himself losing and, most shockingly, Congress winning just one seat. In the 2018 election, too, Congress finished behind ZPM with five seats, but if there was a state where it could hope to stage a comeback it should have been Mizoram which has alternated between MNF and Congress.
The results in some ways were like a medieval English morality play where the morally infirm are punished. Zoramthanga had done his best to play to ethnic divides sparked by rioting in neighbouring Manipur and hoped that pandering to Chin-Kuki-Zo sentiments would hold electoral gains. With turmoil in Myanmar triggering the influx of refugees with similar ethnic connections, Zoramthanga refused to implement the Centre’s direction to record the biometrics of those crossing the border—a decision with serious national-security implications. Congress has consistently criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not visiting Manipur and while addressing the media in Aizawl, Rahul Gandhi said he was grateful for the people of Mizoram supporting and praying for him when he was disqualified as an MP. He said that the religious foundations and languages of the northeastern states were being attacked by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He further said ZPM was not fighting BJP and was rather a platform for RSS to gain entry into the state. “The Manipur model is the RSS model,” he said.
The results in Mizoram offer a sobering lesson for Congress as neither accusing BJP of fanning the riots in Manipur nor presenting itself as a defender of religious diversity in the Northeast has worked. Mizoram’s voters rejected Congress’ claims that it would protect the state’s identity, choosing a local option that stands for more organic or rooted politics. The results also raise the question whether presenting BJP as the main ‘threat’ to the Northeast was relevant at all despite the troubles in Manipur. Clearly, Mizoram’s voters chose to interpret their interests without being overly swayed by the sweep of ethnic sentiments. Although BJP remains a marginal force, it would be galling to see that it has one more seat in the Assembly. Congress is still locked out of a region where it once had untrammelled sway. Rahul Gandhi accused Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of furthering BJP’s saffron agenda in the Northeast. He is right and Sarma seems to be succeeding. Congress’ reduced state in a region with a rich and complex matrix of religions, tribes and ethnicities—the very cultural fabric Congress says BJP is out to destroy—is a reflection of how much the party is out of touch with ground realities.
CONGRESS’ EMPHATIC WIN in Telangana will provide comfort after a win in Karnataka in May. Success in Karnataka offered hope in Telangana where Congress has struggled since the creation of the state in June 2014, ironically after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had agreed to the bifurcation of the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh. The creation of Telangana provided no succour to Congress and in recent months it was BJP that seemed to be gaining. Congress benefitted from the decline of K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) whose increasingly whimsical rule eroded his charisma and standing as the leader who brought the state into being. The challenge before the party is to ensure that the state, under the relatively inexperienced leadership of Revanth Reddy, does not allow either KCR or BJP to gain the upper hand. The problem that confronts Congress governments is an inability to retain office or turn incumbency into a pro-incumbency sentiment. While Rajasthan has changed hands between Congress and BJP, the saffron party was able to record successive victories in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, before losing the elections in 2018. It staged a return in Madhya Pradesh courtesy of Congress’ inability to manage internal conflicts in 2020 and is now firmly ensconced in both states. It does not seem likely BJP will make the same mistake twice and will do all it can to ensure Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh remain infallible bastions.
The just-concluded round of elections shows the limits of the populist ‘Karnataka model’ and the need to consider varying local and regional conditions. In the aftermath of Congress’ win in Karnataka—when it became apparent that the BJP government was badly discredited in the eyes of voters—it might have been useful to ponder whether a less populist manifesto would have also sufficed. The same populism did not work in Rajasthan as it could not repair the effects of party infighting, poor governance and a perception that the state government was indecisive in confronting Islamist extremism. In Madhya Pradesh, a slew of promises had to contend with an incumbent government that, despite some wear and tear, had succeeded in delivering benefits to the poor and agriculturalists. In Chhattisgarh, voters rejected the lure of farm loan waivers and were clearly impacted by allegations of the Mahadev app scam. The investigation that revealed how a small-time satta operator in Bhilai found the patronage of police officials and then, after receiving the backing of top political leaders, moved to Dubai and ran a multi-crore fraud that scammed thousands was very damaging for Congress. It was not that Congress’ promises did not sound attractive. As a group of small farmers in Bina in Madhya Pradesh put it, Congress has had its chances but did not deliver. Though its term in office after the 2018 election was suddenly truncated, it was not particularly inspiring with then-Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s aides being raided by the Income Tax Department for alleged use of unaccounted money in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Passersby at a tea stall on the Jabalpur-Bhopal road said they did feel that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was a little jaded but feared that voting in Congress might halt development. “Sab kuch ruk jayega (Everything will stop),” they said. Congress faces a serious credibility deficit and the problem does not lend itself to an easy resolution.
Congress’ emphatic win in Telangana will provide comfort. But the results in Mizoram offer a sobering lesson as neither accusing BJP of fanning the riots in Manipur nor presenting itself as a defender of religious diversity in the Northeast has worked
Share this on
Prime Minister Narendra Modi rubbed it in at the start of the Winter Session of Parliament when he said the opposition should jettison the politics of negativism it has pursued for the last nine years. The Congress leadership continues to target Modi without returns. Ahead of the 2019 General Election, Rahul Gandhi had repeatedly raised allegations of corruption in the Rafale fighter deal. Rather than accepting that the charges did not impress voters, he accused party seniors of being unenthusiastic in taking up the issue, concentrating instead on the electoral fortunes of their progeny. Similarly, the recent elections saw Rahul and his sister Priyanka Gandhi attacking Modi for alleged cronyism that favours certain industrial houses. While the Gandhi siblings kept repeating the allegations, the state Congress units studiously refused to waste time on issues that had no popular connect. It was quite apparent that accusing the prime minister of cronyism or graft was a non-starter. The Congress leadership’s political line finds ready acceptance among BJP’s ideological opponents and those who experience a loss of entitlement. But this is a small echo-chamber and catering to it makes Congress more and more a representative of fringe interests.
The state elections also saw Congress latch on to the call for a caste census, advocated by leaders like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. It did so without reflecting on whether the demand would sound credible and could run the risk of being seen as another desperate attempt to dilute Hindu consolidation in favour of BJP. The harsh truth was that like the allegations about cronyism, the caste census was just not an issue in any of the states that went to polls. It was a case of Congress shuffling a worn-out pack of cards and coming up with formulations that were either past their use-by date or were overtaken by new paradigms set by rival BJP which has expanded its reach with the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) on the back of a shrewd mix of Hindutva and development programmes. Congress’ dilemma is likely to grow more acute with the Ram temple in Ayodhya due to be thrown open to devotees while rising revenues will allow the Modi government to further fine-tune its welfare schemes ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.