Beware the Ides of March
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In less than a week from now we will have the outcome of the ongoing elections to five states: Goa, Punjab, Manipur, Uttarakhand and the ultimate prize, Uttar Pradesh.
The stakes are incredibly high and consequently several political fortunes are on the line here.
As the immortal line from Julius Caesar penned by Shakespeare said, “Beware the Ides of March”.
Strictly speaking, 11 March, the day the results will be declared is four days short of the Ides of March; but figuratively it sums up the circumstances very well.
As in Roman history, the assassination of Caesar on that day marked a turning point in the history of that civilization, there is much at stake for the winners as well as losers. It has the potential to be a benchmark moment in Indian politics.
For one, the latest round of elections comes just past the midway point of the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While the economy is on the cusp—much healthier, but still vulnerable to a sudden shock, induced domestically or externally—politics is on the boil; especially with Modi’s relentless efforts to challenge the status quo (the controversial note ban being an example).
A favourable verdict, especially a win in Uttar Pradesh (which the chatterati, normally inimical to the PM, are already calling for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even though the final phase is yet to go to the polls), would be a numbing blow to Modi’s opponents, both within and outside the party.
While in Goa the BJP is fighting as the incumbent, in Uttarakhand it is the challenger—though both are small states, they matter to the larger Modi plan.
On the other hand, a defeat will mean a definite loss of face to an otherwise extremely self-confident prime minister, something he leaned on to shrug off the humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar in 2015. With an assured majority in Parliament, there will be no immediate threat to his government.
However his critics, particularly inside the party, will find a voice and cause; not to openly revolt, but at least to dissent.
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Second, the Congress is likely to face tougher questions about its future; particularly for the leadership, defined around the Gandhi family.
Beginning with the rout in 2014, when it dropped to its lowest total ever in the Lok Sabha winning only 44 seats, the Congress has seen its electoral footprint shrink with every poll.
Its only success was in Bihar, a state which it called its own not so long ago but fought in 2015 as an understudy to what are basically two regional outfits; in Uttar Pradesh too it is allied as a lesser partner with another regional force, the Samajwadi Party (SP).
Its brightest hope is in Punjab, where a pugnacious campaign by its state leader, Amarinder Singh, has bought the Congress to the doorstep of a victory; here again, besides Singh’s charisma, it is the massive two-term anti-incumbency against the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine working the magic for the opposition—exactly why the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is in the game to pull off a sensational upset.
To cover the poor performance there will be many who will be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the Gandhis. But that would just be living in denial and kicking the can down the road. The slow implosion of the country’s oldest political party is creating a vacuum—the contrast is so much more because of the meteoric rise of the BJP as the new pole of Indian politics. And the blame for this rests squarely at the door of the Gandhis.
Third, there are political rivals waiting in the wings to take up where the Congress has left off.
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The obvious contender, if nothing at least for its daring self-belief and naked ambition, is AAP.
To them a win in Punjab will be the perfect launch pad for its national ambitions—especially in two-party-ruled states involving the Congress. Even if it came up a strong second in Punjab it will keep them in business but not generate the desired momentum.
Similarly, Akhilesh Yadav has gambled all in his audacious political coup against his father and founder of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Failure to win his re-election bid would be disastrous for Akhilesh Yadav; his opponents, within the party, are unlikely to show any mercy.
A mutiny of this scale would put a question mark on the immediate future of the Samajwadi Party and Akhilesh Yadav. Of course, in the event of a win, Indian politics will have a new youthful force.
Clearly, then there is a lot riding on these ongoing elections. Come Saturday we have to see whether we have one winner or several winners.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
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