With India’s general elections only weeks away, a large section of ‘secular’ voters in India are learning to live with Rahul Gandhi as their most viable bet for a non-Modi prime minister.
However, a deeper look, along with recent experience, suggests that it is Mayawati, not Rahul Gandhi, who has everything going for her to become India’s next non-Modi prime minister.
The clue lies in the events that took place in Karnataka in May last year. Despite having less than half as many seats as Indian National Congress in the assembly, it was Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal Secular that got the invite to form the government. This was, of course, because the INC gave a letter of support to the governor even EVMs has stopped whirring after the counting.
The reason was not far to seek: It lay in the Congress’ desperation.
India’s grand old party was on the verge of extinction.
State after state had fallen to the lotus, and the saffron now stretched from one end of the country to the other.
The party was faced with two options — support JDS, or watch the BJP take yet another state with its money and muscle power, making it look like a novice and a weakling, and losing yet another chance to put a speed-breaker under the saffron party’s juggernaut.
It was hardly a choice. Kumaraswamy was the right man at the right time, much like his father 22 years ago. Congress realized that sometimes, your enemy’s defeat is more important than your own victory.
It now looks almost certain that after May elections, the Parliament of India will look much like the Karnataka Assembly: The BJP and the INC will be roughly equal in size with 135-180 seats each, leaving about 250 seats among regional parties.
Among these ‘third front’ parties, the biggest would be the Akhilesh-Mayawati ‘alliance’ with around 70 seats between them.
The two Uttar Pradesh politicians are known for being hard negotiators, and for their unwavering commitment to the principles of pragmatic politics.
Moreover, being regional parties with an assured vote base, they have less to lose from another term for the BJP at the center, and can play the game of ‘take it or leave it’ better than the Congress.
They can, in other words, put forward the proposal of India’s first Dalit prime minister, backed by other anti-Congress, anti-BJP parties like TDP, TRS, TMC, DMK and CPIM.
It will then be up to the Congress whether it wants to make history, or live under a BJP government for another five years.
For the grand old party, it’s a deal it cannot refuse. While it has managed to somewhat weather Modi’s first term in office, another five years away from power could bring things to a head inside the party.
The first challenge in such a scenario will be to Rahul Gandhi‘s leadership.
There is currently almost no overt dissent because heavyweights in the party believe that Rahul can deliver the goods — if not in terms of governance, at least in terms of electoral success.
This will change if they are faced with the prospect of spending another five years on the opposition benches. There could be calls to bring Priyanka to the fore. Dissent — so far well contained and beneath the surface — could break out in to the open.
Given how sensitive the (real) Congress leadership is about this subject, it is strictly a no-go area for the party, one to be avoided at all costs including supporting a third front.
The second factor is the lure of coming back to power in a year or two.
The Congress would, correctly, assess that the a third front government would be unstable, incoherent and could easily be brought down at a later stage without the risk of getting any hate mail. Give such a government a year or so, and then bring it down on charges of having failed to deliver.
In the subsequent election, the Congress and the BJP can approach the electorate with the promise of delivering a ‘stable’ government, urging voters to eschew regional parties in the interest of stability. It may just be the weapon that Congress needs in its fight to reclaim its territory from regional upstarts, at least in national elections.
Compare this to the situation in which the Congress tries to play hardball with Mayawati and ends up sending the Dalit leader to the BJP camp.
A new BJP government, however precarious its initial position, can be banked up on to use all kinds of ‘gentle persuasions’ to bring more and more parties to its fold and complete its term.
Moreover, a second Modi government, wiser from experience, is unlikely to repeat many of the mistakes and blunders of the first term.
Such a government also stands to benefit from some of the long-term reforms it has put in place in the first term, such as the GST. With the maturity and wisdom gained from the first term, Modi may be able to substantially deliver on the ‘achha din‘ he promised when he took over in 2014.
A second term under a more mellowed and matured Modi could also deny Congress its biggest asset — its brahmastra — the widespread fear that BJP’s Gujarati strongman is incapable of respecting the fundamental principles on which this country is formed.
The fear is that Modi doesn’t have the ‘largeness of heart’ and the ‘broadness of vision’ required to take everyone along in a country rife with all kinds of divisions and cleavages. The stress and tensions of the first term has led to a deepening of some of these divisions — along linguistic, caste, regional and religious basis.
This fear, which peaked immediately after Modi took over, had started ebbing in subsequent months as Modi gave out indications that he would try take everyone along.
However, it gathered strength again mid-way into the term after a spate of violent incidents targeting Muslims and Dalits in the name of protecting the cow, which in turn followed on the heels of Modi’s appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister.
This fear is Congress’ biggest weapon, and Modi’s Achilles heel. It plays on the minds of many influential persons in the country, creating an invisible ‘institutional undercurrent’ in favor of the Congress.
A second five-year term under a ‘wiser’ Modi could dilute this fear and may reduce it to zero consequence in the 2024 elections. After all, if democracy, inclusiveness and the ‘idea of India’ survived under Modi for ten years, it can certainly survive another five. It could also help BJP start attracting minority votes in places like Kerala, to the detriment of the Congress.
It is, therefore, crucial for the grand old party to deny Modi a chance to prove such fears wrong.
Thus, the Congress will find itself in a similar situation as in Karnataka, where denying the BJP a chance becomes more important than getting for itself a shot at government.
Besides the above factors, the situation could also offer Rahul Gandhi a chance to reclaim some of his lost electorate via a ‘Supreme Sacrifice‘. Like his mother 15 years earlier, he could step aside so that India could have its first Dalit prime minister, which could yield long-term benefits.
While such a ‘sacrifice’ may not yield it substantial dividends in Uttar Pradesh — as these would be cornered by Mayawati herself — it would win the party substantial mileage among Dalits in other parts of India.
INC has, over the years, seen its Dalit votebase shift to regional parties and such an effort could help to bring at least some of those voters back. This would, of course, depend on how tactfully the ‘third front’ government is eventually brought down.
Finally, the idea of Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister also faces considerable, if latent, resistance from more experienced leaders of other parties, including Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and of course, Mayawati herself, all of who see him as somewhat of a new kid on the block.
At the same time, suggesting another leader from within the Congress as prime minister raises certain risks for Rahul Gandhi’s future as the unquestioned leader of the party. The PM may ultimately spawn his own competing dynasty. This thorny issue too can be overcome by supporting an external leader like Mayawati, until Congress is able to come back with a strong mandate under Gandhi’s leadership.