Losing edge

Losing edge

The central plank of the Congress electoral strategy in Gujarat was built around the maxim, Modi’s enemy is my friend. Dictated by the party high command in New Delhi, the Congress had hoped to thrive on dissidence against Narendra Modi within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Presuming its traditional voter-base was intact, this would have meant a romp home for the Congress.

In theory, yes, not in practice. Sunday morning confirmed the worst fears for the grand old party. Modi led his party to a landslide win: 117 out of the 182 Assembly seats.

The bigger lesson, though, is for the Congress party. It failed to project a leader till late in the election campaign. It’s secular claims rang hollow when the party served up seats to the BJP dissidents, some of whom are alleged to have to played an active role in the post-Godhra riots.

Further, it never really held out an alterative. It played into Modi’s hands by letting the chief minister set the agenda. He astutely first built up his campaign around the development of Gujarat and then, in the final week, upped his ante against the Congress brand of secularism.

After being marginalized in Uttar Pradesh and conceding Uttarakhand and Punjab, the Gujarat defeat will further dent sentiments within the Congress. A weakened Congress will imply a less united coalition at the Centre. This will have an immediate bearing on the government’s agenda.

A weakened UPA, or United Progressive Alliance, will find it difficult to brush off the Left’s opposition to taking the civilian nuclear deal with the US forward. It will also most certainly blunt the reformist edge of its policies, particularly in the upcoming Union and Railway Budgets.

The most immediate litmus test will be hiking the prices of oil and fertilizers. The government has been making some noises that oil prices would be increased next month. We will soon know whether it will go ahead with this, or whether it will continue with the fiscal fudge of floating oil bonds. Don’t be surprised if it’s the latter. Further, the government’s defensive mindset would find vent in a rash of more populist schemes.

Neither the Left nor the Congress is likely to want a snap poll given the current circumstances. While they would presumably pull back from brinksmanship, it will give rise to a bigger problem: paralysis of policy. The limbo, which has been in effect ever since the Congress and the Left began their duel over the nuclear deal, will persist.

Ironically, it was a similar cynical pursuit of power that has put paid to its hopes in Gujarat. The Congress would pay heed to discern the electoral data more carefully.

Traditionally, Gujarat has been a two-party fiefdom, with the loser still ending up with about 40% of the votes cast. Too early to say, but things may be about to change.

The BSP, or Bahujan Samaj Party, fresh from its success in Uttar Pradesh, contested 166 assembly constituencies. It did not win a single seat, but has in several close contests between the BJP and the Congress played the spoiler. While electoral verdicts can’t be second-guessed, it is obvious that BSP has left behind its calling card. The memory of being progressively marginalized in Uttar Pradesh is presumably still fresh.

Otherwise, as George Santayana, the philosopher, put it in Life in Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Will the Congress’ defeat in Gujarat take the wind out of the government’s reformist sails? Write to us at views@livemint.com