- 24 April 2014

Narendra Modi files his nomination in Varanasi, Praful Bidwai believes 'a straight contest against Priyanka would have put Modi on the defensive and forced him to concentrate on Varanasi.'

Something unusual happened to the exhausted, jaded, effete Indian National Congress the other day. After years, somebody in the party had a bright new idea -- of fielding Priyanka Gandhi as its Lok Sabha candidate against Narendra Modi in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

That would have instantly changed the entire complexion of the current election, electrified not just the Poorvanchal region (eastern UP) and adjoining parts of Bihar, but the whole nation, and qualitatively changed the character of today's political game.

Whatever reservations one may have about the unhealthy, probably crippling, effect of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on the Congress, there can be little dispute that Priyanka would have been best placed to defeat Modi, or at least give him a run for his money.

Priyanka, reports The Times of India, was keen on fighting Modi because she believes he is 'bad for the country'. Most other parties in the fray in Varanasi, say credible reports, would have withdrawn their candidates in her favour.

An agreement 'in principle' was reached on fielding a strong common candidate in informal discussions between the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. This reveals the strength and pervasiveness of the hostility Modi evokes from other parties irrespective of their ideology or social base.

A straight contest against Priyanka would have punctured Modi's '56-inch-chest' hubris, put him on the defensive, and curtailed his campaigning trips by forcing him to concentrate his attention and energy on Varanasi.

Indeed, Priyanka would have had a far higher chance of defeating Modi than would her mother (who has proved a very capable and respected leader), leave alone her brother (who has not, despite being offered many opportunities on a platter).

That is not because Priyanka is a proven leader, but precisely because she is new, fresh, politically untested and hence not yet discredited. What little she has said of political significance so far conveys a sense of seriousness, lack of cynicism, some intelligence, and a degree of concern for the underprivileged.

She has shown sharp political instincts during her limited interactions with sub-district-level Congress members or when canvassing support for her family. Many first-hand observers say her intuition and grasp of politics is far superior to Rahul's, and she can communicate more effectively with ordinary people. Even her opponents concede she has charm and charisma.

It may not speak of acutely discriminating judgment or great maturity on the part of the Indian electorate that it should be taken in by factors such as physical appearance, glamour, family lineage, and other ingredients of charisma, which make Priyanka resemble her grandmother Indira Gandhi in the eyes of many people. It is sad to see them being obsequious towards individuals who exude power.

But then, 1, Safdarjang Road in Delhi, where Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and where her blood clots are bizarrely preserved in a glass cask, attracts many more busloads of domestic tourists, typically from subaltern backgrounds, than does Rajghat, where Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi is situated.

For many such people, Indira Gandhi's 'sacrifice' for the nation is more immediately identifiable and more a part of their living memory than the Mahatma's. They may be morally wrong and politically unbalanced in this morbid fascination. But that doesn't alter an observable fact.

Similarly, fascination for the wealth and glamour of former princelings and rajmatas (which help them win elections regardless of competence or political affiliation) hardly speaks to the voter's political maturity or commitment to democracy.

Even less does the lethally aggressive appeal or Fuehrer-style awe that Modi invokes as the man who presided over the 2002 massacre of innocent citizens and who has not shown an iota of remorse for it. He is admired for being cocksure about everything and being ruthlessly decisive.

None of this justifies the dynasty principle. Nor does it argue that Priyanka had a natural or superior claim to a Varanasi victory, but only that by contesting against Modi, she would have demonstrated a spirit of defiance and a willingness to take risks.

This would have infused new energies into the now-demoralised Congress and rejuvenated its rank-and-file at a time when some of its senior leaders are running away from electoral battle. The overall result would have been positive for the Congress even if she had lost.

In politics, putting up a spirited fight is sometimes more important than victory or defeat -- as shown by the hard work put in by Sonia Gandhi to rejuvenate the Congress in several states in the 1990s, paving its return to national power in 2004. Nobody in the party is willing to do that today.

In the present case, the Congress decided not to field Priyanka for entirely parochial and dishonourable reasons. She might have eclipsed her brother; her possible defeat would have destroyed the Gandhi family's 'halo' and she's vulnerable to criticism because of her husband Robert Vadra, who stands implicated in various shady deals.

Priyanka claims that the decision not to contest was solely hers -- not the family's or party's. This is open to doubt. What is beyond question is that she lost a precious opportunity to distance herself publicly from Vadra and other past baggage and emerge as an independent person and political figure in her own right.

She will now confine herself to playing a subordinate role managing her mother's and brother's campaigns, thus further tightening the family's increasingly dysfunctional and corrosive hold over the Congress. That would be a setback for the party even if Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi win from Rae Bareilly and Amethi, as seems likely.

The Congress's chances now look gloomier than ever before. Unless something dramatic happens, its tally could fall below the lowest-ever mark, 114 seats in 1999. But this doesn't automatically translate into a proportionate gain for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance in our multi-polar, highly regionalised polity -- no matter what the polls say.

There are three main reasons for this. First, several ground reports by experienced journalists suggest there is no 'Modi wave', especially in UP and Bihar, but only a 'Modi effect' with relatively strong youth support in urban centres, which thins out in the rural and semi-rural areas.

If there were indeed a wave, Modi's campaign would not have to stoop to communal appeals (as evidenced by Amit Shah's venomous speeches, banned and then unbanned by the Election Commission, along with Azam Khan's toxic canvassing), and low-level personal attacks.

A wave unites people across castes, communities and regions. Yet the emphasis in the Modi campaign isn't on uniting but on polarising voters, stoking communal prejudice and capitalising on hatred.

Second, numerous cracks are becoming evident in the BJP's ranks and its relations with existing and potential partners. Recent statements by veterans L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj bear testimony to this. As does the raucous anti-Joshi protest by Modi supporters in Kanpur.

The entire BJP leadership barring little-known national general secretary Dharmendra Pradhan is in the dark about plans for Modi's campaign rallies, scores of which have been held across the country. The party's best-known faces are consciously excluded from these. This is bound to cause inner-party heartburn and discontent. Even sabotage isn't excluded in many seats in the Hindi belt.

More important, both J Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee, expected to emerge as major regional players from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have distanced themselves from Modi for a non-Congress-non-BJP 'federal front'. Jayalalithaa has turned especially vocal in criticising the 'Gujarat model'.

In Andhra Pradesh, tensions are growing between the Telugu Desam Party and the BJP over ticket distribution and the importance being given to Nara Chandrababu Naidu by equating him with Na-Mo (Naidu+Modi) in the joint campaign. Telangana BJP leaders resent the alliance with the TDP, seen as a Seema Andhra party.

Third, it won't be easy for the BJP to take away votes from powerful cadre-based parties in UP like the BSP and Samajwadi Party, which have built tightly knit social coalitions. As the campaign warms up, these parties are making their impact felt -- the BSP, by fielding the highest number of Muslim candidates among all parties (19), and the Samajwadi Party, by making special appeals to diverse groups besides its established Yadav-Muslim combination.

If the BJP is to win 45-to-50 seats in UP necessary to reach a national total of about 200 it would have to double its state vote-share to about 35 percent, way above the 27-28 percent it won in the 1990s, when it crossed the 50-seat mark. That's do-able. But it's a tall order.

Praful Bidwai