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Indian politics goes Hindi TV serial path

Thursday, March 01, 2018
By Bharatkumar Raut

Indian politics is as unpredictable as any Hindi TV serial in India. Like the most unconvincing but most popular TV serials, Indian political games also change every day and often take sharp U-turns, without losing balance. Such moves baffle the political pundits and observers as their predictions go wrong. However, such moves have come as great entertainers for the people. Recently, expelled Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Nasimuddin Siddiqui, his son and wife joined the Congress while Sharad Pawar, NCP chief, made his own overtures for Rahul Gandhi while attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for "distasteful personal attacks". Both incidents have a deep but invisible sense and logic.

Both Rahul and Modi were shocked. Modi because he has described Pawar as his "political guru" when he made the trek to Pawar's fiefdom, Baramati, to flag off a project ironically on Valentine's Day in 2015, and Gandhi because Pawar has so far been dismissive of his political abilities and has been a reliable if covert ally to BJP President Amit Shah.

Mayawati not surprised
Ghulam Nabi Azad, who handles Uttar Pradesh for the Congress, says, "Siddiqui joining us is a sign of the way the wind is blowing. Many other UP leaders are also going to join us soon". Azad pointedly said that he knew that BSP chief Mayawati would not be upset by the Congress admitting Siddiqui and family as she had expelled him for allegedly siphoning off party funds after the BSP's disastrous showing in the assembly elections. This indicates that the Congress, which hopes to gain in Western UP with Siddiqui's entry has still not giving up trying to have an alliance with "Behenji" despite her numerous public snubs.

Does this mean the long Congress somnolence is over? Indications are mixed. While senior Congress leaders are delighted that Rahul, after taking over as president from his mother in December, has made no mis-steps and stayed put with sustained political engagement and new-found aggression, gaping holes remain in the party's strategy. Despite Rajasthan Congress Chief Sachin Pilot wresting Ajmer and Alwar from the BJP in recent by-elections, he will not be made the Congress's chief ministerial face for the Rajasthan state election due early next year. Neither will Congress chief whip Jyotiraditya Scindia be the Chief Ministerial face for Madhya Pradesh, where he is currently campaigning like a man possessed for the Kolaras and Mungaoli Assembly seats, both of which are part of his Lok Sabha constituency. It would be mostly the last electoral battle between the Congress and the BJP in MP before assembly elections. Scindia has also tried to publicly nudge Rahul in to declaring him the party's presumptive chief minister, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has also left no stone unturned to prove there is no anti-incumbency after 14 years of his being chief minister.

With the BJP in power in 19 states, Karnataka and Punjab are the only two big states that the Congress now holds. As election season kicks off, Rahul has clearly empowered Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who is getting to call the shots and run a smart campaign to retain the southern state, critical for the Congress. Senior Congress leaders say that Rahul has listened to Siddaramiah on issues such as "Kannadiga pride" and tapping in to "sub-nationalism" as a key strategy to stave off the BJP. Under President Amit Shah, the BJP is going all out to wrest Karnataka which, if they succeed, will give them big tailwinds as the country heads for the bigger extravagansa of Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Rahul is also being credited with getting back disgruntled leaders such as Delhi's Arvinder Singh Lovely who had defected from the party and getting former Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit and Delhi chief Ajay Maken to smoke the peace pipe and at least put on hold the long-running battle within the Congress in the capital state.

However, Rahul is really not moving fast enough on the setting up the framework for Election 2019. After dissolving the Working Committee, the party's top decision-making body, he has appointed a Steering Committee, packed with the ho-hum same-old-same-old Sonia Gandhi loyalists. A shake-and-stir is apparently likely in March when Gandhi will ask for 10 of the Working Committee's 20 seats to be decided by elections, rather than nominations which was the route taken consistently by his mother. Rahul 's bid to ensure that all factions are accommodated, which means not rocking the boat in Rajasthan and MP where powerful factions are arrayed against each other, might still go against the Congress. In Rajasthan, former chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot have been asked to sink their differences and work together. Both sense that Vasundhara Raje can be toppled and both are obsessed with being CM.

According to a senior Congress leader," Rahul has shown great acumen in getting three community leaders with different agendas together in Gujarat; but can he get Congress leaders to work together? If he can make them sink personal ambition, he will be a success as party president. The Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections next month in Uttar Pradesh will also provide a reality check of the Congress claims of being battle-ready. Despite it being a prestige contest, Gandhi could not get Akhilesh Yadav, erstwhile ally and Samajwadi Party chief, to put up a common candidate against the BJP. Uttar Pradesh is the only way to power in Delhi, and while the BJP may not be able to match its 2014 record haul of winning 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats, it has found a pan-India face in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who is currently getting a "vikas" (development) makeover, holding the first UP investor summit on the lines of Modi's signature "Vibrant Gujarat".

It is a steep contrast that with the Congress which has no face and no organisation or even a plan in UP, realisation, however belated, may have dawned and Sonia Gandhi is going to make a trip to her constituency Raebareli this month. However, pocket boroughs don't quite make up a political strategy. Hence, Azad's hasty placation of Mayawati after inducting Siddiqui. The Congress hopes to get all the regional heavy-weights to unite against the BJP in UP. Says a senior Congress party leader " Rahul should be reaching out to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who is angry with the BJP and ensure that he switches which will actually make life difficult for the government in the House. We need to get more aggressive; despite the public anger displayed by Naidu, we are allowing the BJP to placate him".

Rahul has upped his social media game with witty tweets attacking Modi on absconding jeweller Nirav Modi who has allegedly committed an 11,000-crore fraud with Punjab National Bank, the country's second-largest state lender. Gandhi has also appointed a chief of big data, set up a professionals' wing of the Congress, but this does not compensate for the lack of boots on the ground with the party's cadre withering away. The Congress does not have a booth-level structure which existed in Indira Gandhi's time in every block. Amit Shah has learned from it and built a formidable one. The Congress is also struggling with funds, evident in the lackluster campaign currently going on in the North- East. The BJP is awash in funds.

Anti-Modi crusade
The question is, what made Pawar, a weather vane with a skill for sensing the direction of Indian politics, praise Rahul? It was Rahul's consistent attacks on Modi. Currently Rahul's entire politics is defined as being anti-Modi and after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's shock defection to the NDA late last year, this consistency is the one thing that is holding Gandhi in good stead. The BJP is tripping on two of its biggest selling points, fighting corruption and delivering development.

The 2G case collapsed in court and the country has seen serial exits by billionaires accused of fraud (Lalit Modi, Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi). The opposition believes that 2019 is wide open with Modi not being a shoo-in for a second term. The one constant thing Gandhi has done is highlight Modi's failures instead of occasionally playing tootsie with him like Pawar. Modi and Shah's high-decibel personal attacks on Rahul and his family have also paradoxically helped him in forcing the opposition and the public to take him seriously.

All these incidents singularly and collectively only indicate that the gamer of politics will be dirtier and dirtier day after day and the 2019 Elections would not be a pleasant show of politics.

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