Sometimes, the expected masquerades as the unexpected. Sober reflection had told us many months ago that the governments in Assam and Kerala would be voted out and new governments voted in. That a change would also happen in Puducherry. That in West Bengal, the TMC would be returned to power overcoming the unusual (but understandable) tactical alliance between the Congress and the Left parties.
The only enigmatic state was Tamil Nadu. Will Ms Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) defy history and be returned for a second consecutive term? Or, will Mr Karunanidhi (DMK) defy age and become the chief minister at 92 years?
As it turned out, the election results were as expected a few months ago—that is before the spin masters and the pollsters took over and created a mystery around the elections.
The two national parties have much to introspect about. The hard truth is that neither of them has a truly national footprint today. The Congress has a limited presence in the Hindi heartland and the BJP has a nominal presence in the southern and eastern states. The space is occupied by one-state parties.
Of the two, it is the Congress that has more reasons to worry. In the case of the BJP, it will be in office at the Centre for another three years and it can boast that it has claimed one major state (Assam) without losing any. On the contrary, the Congress is now in office in only one major state (Karnataka) having lost two in this round of elections.
Both parties have seven months to re-work their strategies before they face crucial elections in seven states—including the prize catch of Uttar Pradesh. Winning Uttar Pradesh, at present, is a toss-up between two powerful regional players, the SP and the BSP. Both national parties have three states each to defend: the BJP will defend Goa, Gujarat and Punjab, and the Congress will defend Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Uttarakhand. The scales between the two national parties are pretty even at this point of time.
I am an ardent supporter of the case for “national” parties because I think building a nation and fostering a sense of nationhood require the presence of at least two national parties who can form, or lead, a government at the Centre.
Both the BJP and the Congress made crucial mistakes in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The BJP made the mistake of ‘creating’ a political party out of SNDP and aligning with that party, hoping to divide the people of Kerala on religious lines. It won just one seat. The Congress made the mistake of not aligning with the AIUDF (and the BoPF) in Assam fearing that such an alliance would polarise the voters which, in any event, happened, thanks to the AIUDF’s rhetoric, and ensured a comfortable victory for the BJP.
After the heat and dust of the elections settle, both the BJP and the Congress would have to look inward and re-organise themselves for the big battle of 2019. Both have huge responsibilities during the next three years. In the case of the BJP, it must demonstrate that it has the capacity to deliver 8-plus% growth, create jobs for the millions who are unemployed, and keep social peace and harmony. In the case of the Congress, it must demonstrate that it has the capacity to become, once again, the natural party of governance. It must also re-build the party from the village/town unit to the block unit to the district unit to the state unit, many of which exist today only on paper.
I am hardly in a position to advise either party. To the BJP, I am a member of the party in opposition and hence must be regarded as suspect! To the Congress, I am a member of that party and hence must remain discreet!
Nevertheless, I have decided to advise both national parties. What I will say now is what I have said before.
To the BJP, I say the following:
* India’s new ‘normal’ for GDP growth seems to be 7%. In order to break away from the new ‘normal’, the government must summon the vision and courage to do bold structural reforms (a la 1991-92) as well as the grace and humility to engage the Opposition and accommodate their views (November 22, 2015).
* Mr Modi can pause, take stock, pull back and steer the party on the path of good governance and development (November 15, 2015).
To the Congress, I say the following:
* There will always be a número uno, but it is good to present a picture of a collective leadership. King Arthur had his round table. Secondly, the Congress must constitute or reconstitute the committees at the block level. It is a task that can, starting from scratch, be accomplished in 12 months or less. Thirdly, the Congress must communicate its views to its cadres and to the people every day in Hindi, English and other Indian languages (February 15, 2015).
* And I would add, fourthly, the Congress must re-write its policy platform on the key social and economic issues in a manner that would appeal to the age group of 15 to 35 years.
After Delhi and Bihar, it was believed that the five elections of 2016 will be the turning point. Nothing of that sort has happened, but the results of 2016 hint that the elections of 2017 may turn out to be the decisive turning point.