Tharoor Line | Himachal proves united Congress can scale new heights

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Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu with senior leader Anand Sharma and others during his swearing-in ceremony, in Shimla, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. File Photo/PTI.

So much has been written about last week’s state Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, with the Municipal Corporation elections in New Delhi thrown in for good measure, that perhaps it is now time to draw a deep breath and take stock of the enduring lessons we can draw from them for the future.

The first major conclusion is that the BJP is not invulnerable – except in Gujarat. Winning a seventh election in a row there makes the state something of a captive territory for the BJP, driven by the successful identification of the party with “Gujarati asmita” (pride in Gujarati identity) and the leadership of its favourite son, Narendra Modi. It is striking that even a major governance failure like the Morbi bridge collapse, which pointed to corruption, poor decision-making, government collusion with a favoured business and serious inattention to public welfare in the avoidable deaths of 135 citizens, did not prevent the BJP from achieving a record 156 seats in the state Assembly. Nor can the party’s triumph be attributed, as some of us initially and erroneously did, to the role of AAP as a “spoiler”, dividing the anti-BJP votes.

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Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu (left) with former Himachal Pradesh CM Jairam Thakur (right), in Shimla on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Photo: PTI.

Psephologists have confirmed that even if the two opposition parties’ votes in this Gujarat election were combined, the BJP would have won a comfortable majority of 124 seats. In other words, the BJP has established itself as currently unbeatable in the Prime Minister’s home state.

But the success in Gujarat points, by contrast, to the failures everywhere else.

In Himachal Pradesh, which rather like Kerala had a 37-year pattern of alternating state governments with every election, all of the BJP’s vaunted electoral wiles could not prevent the Congress winning with a decisive majority. The BJP also endured a rout in New Delhi, whose three municipal corporations, all ruled earlier by the BJP, were merged into one, in an effort to guarantee a favourable outcome for the party in command of the national government. Nothing worked – the Aam Aadmi Party, whose state government is undoubtedly popular with the city’s residents, swept the polls, relegating the national ruling party to second place.

Congress workers celebrates the party's victory in Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Kullu, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Photo: PTI

There is, in other words, a limit to the BJP’s electoral magic. Indeed, it has lost nearly half of all the state Assembly elections it has contested since 2019.

A second broad lesson that suggests itself is that the Congress cannot be written off as the nation’s principal opposition party.

The Himachal election provided a reminder that in as many as nine significant states (Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka), the Congress remains the principal, and in many cases the only, serious challenger to the BJP. (In other states that distinction is enjoyed by a regional party, and in Kerala the contest between the LDF and the UDF has relegated the BJP to a distant third place). These nine states account for 155 seats in the Lok Sabha; add Maharashtra’s 48 seats (where a Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena combine is a formidable force challenging the BJP) and Kerala’s 20, and you have 223 Lok Sabha seats in which Congress is the most viable Opposition alternative.

This explains why, despite all talk of a third front, every other opposition force in the country realises that in the end it will have to come to terms with the Indian National Congress if it is to create a viable alternative government to the BJP’s.

Third, the contrast between the Congress’s performance in Gujarat and in Himachal is striking. In Gujarat the party was perceived to have run a listless and uninspired campaign, devoid of any clear direction or without any prominent local leaders to rally around. Its few local “stars” like the young firebrand Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani complained that they were not even used properly to campaign around the state. Other young leaders like Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore, whose support had been vital in the 2017 elections, when Congress came close to upsetting the BJP, had even defected to the other side. In contrast, in Himachal Pradesh the efforts were led by local grassroots leaders, with support from prominent national figures like Priyanka Gandhi and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel.

Though inevitably there were three factions within the party – one around PCC chief Pratibha Singh, the widow of the state’s legendary CM Virbhadra Singh, one around Mukesh Agnihotri and the largest behind Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, the son of a bus driver who had risen through the NSUI and Youth Congress ranks to be a prominent player – the three did not work at cross-purposes, and the party’s victory was decisive. In the end the three factions compromised their differences to rally behind Sukhu as CM and Agnihotri as his deputy, with a likely cabinet post for the PCC chief’s son in the offing.

The party’s majority is large enough to shield it from the usual BJP poaching and inducements to MLAs to defect.

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Himachal Pradesh Governor Rajendra Vishwanath Arlekar, left, administers oath to Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, right, during his swearing in ceremony at Shimla, India, Sunday, Dec.11, 2022. Photo: PTI

In other words, those critics who write the Congress off as poorly organised, inept at political manoeuvring, unable to generate or support local talent and too easily thwarted by the BJP, forget that there is no “one-size fits all” analysis that applies across our vast and diverse country.

Some of these criticisms have been true of the party at different places and different times in recent years, but Himachal Pradesh proves the Congress can still get it right. Let us hope it continues to do so at every opportunity, starting with the Assembly elections in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh next year, which offer the best opportunity to derail the BJP juggernaut.

Autonomous EC
Former chief election commissioner SY Qureshi has said that the heart of democracy is an autonomous Election Commission, and there are genuine questions about India’s. “Nowhere else in the world is an election commissioner unilaterally appointed by the ruling government,” he pointed out, calling for a process that could include, for instance, a selection committee with the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India, and the leader of the principal Opposition party all having a say. It’s well worth a thought – but what is the likelihood of our current ruling party ever depriving itself of the power of appointment, until it is defeated in the polls itself?

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