Too close to call in Meghalaya

Too close to call in Meghalaya

Opposition parties believe they are in with a chance but division of votes and Mukul Sangma may change it

Meghalaya will elect its new Assembly on February 27. The 60 Assembly seats of the State, on an average, have 30,000 voters, which makes the election dynamics interesting and quite different from big Assembly seats that have about three lakh voters. The dynamics of Assembly election in Meghalaya can be compared with any big municipality election, viz Mumbai or Delhi municipality election. It is mostly won by the charisma of local leaders and micro-management of the campaign. A closer look at the voting pattern in the last five Assembly elections reveals that most of the Assembly seats are influenced by local leaders and national parties have very little influence. Even star campaigners of national parties have little impact.

Political Scenario
The State is dominated by many parties, including the Indian National Congress (INC), North East Social Democratic Party (NESDP), United Democratic Party (UDP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP). The regional parties have a sizeable presence and owing to the strong presence of multiple national and regional parties, the State always gets a fractured mandate. No single party has got a majority in the last four decades. The government is mostly formed by INC or UDP in alliance with independents and other like-minded parties. The political chaos is set to rise to the next level in this election for it will see the rise more political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), National People Party (NPP), People Democratic Front (PDF) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Exodus Impact
The confusing political landscape can be seen in the mass exodus of political heavyweights. While prominent leaders from the INC have joined the NPP, BJP, PDF and other political parties, a good number of independent MLAs and leaders from other political parties have joined the INC. It is widely believed that this exodus will benefit NPP, PDF and BJP and may tilt the results their way. But I do not quite agree with this theory. The impact of the high-profile exodus can be minimised by the INC by intelligent selection of the young, assertive and local candidates.

NPP as Challenger
The NPP now has a strong presence in Khasi and Jaintia Hills as several leaders from other parties have joined it. This has helped the NPP gain reasonably in the Garo Hills, which till the last Assembly election was an INC bastion. But the success of the NPP will largely depend on the performance of all of the defected leaders. If all these leaders perform well and influence the voters, we might see it forming the next government in Meghalaya.

Development Mantra
In this election, the voice of change is strong. The promise of change is based on the most potent tool for winning elections — development and voice against corruption. Moreover, parties like the NPP, BJP, AAP and the PDF are working hard on the ground to make maximum gains. Recently, NPP supremo Conrad K Sangma exuded confidence that the “NPP would not be the single largest party but will win majority.” All regional parties believe that people are done with the INC and so, they are in a position of strength.

After winning Assam and Manipur, the BJP is trying hard to win Meghalaya. The party is banking on the popularity of Narendra Modi, development mantra and wiping out corruption. But it is struggling with the politics of beef ban, cow slaughter and after-effects of demonetisation and GST.

All Is Not Lost
It is evident from the past performance of the INC that the voters of the State prefer the INC over all other parties. The INC has always been the single largest party here and it enjoys a dominant vote share of 30%. There is a strong belief among political enthusiasts that the dominance of INC may be challenged in this election and the rise of new players like AAP, BJP and NPP would change the political landscape.

Given its ground strength, it will not be right to pronounce the fall of INC in Meghalaya. The political acumen and the shrewdness of Dr Mukul Sangma also should not be underestimated. He knows how to play his cards to reap maximum advantage. He is the only Chief Minister after SC Marak to have completed a full term in office and that speaks volumes about his political acumen. The unorganised opposition is banking on development and corruption charges but no one has shared details of the corruption. That makes the opposition argument hollow and voters may not buy that Dr Sangma is corrupt, though they may question the government on development issues. So, Dr Sangma will have to come up with a strong narrative on development to counter the opposition.

Fresh Start
An astute politician like Dr Sangma is a huge asset for the INC in Meghalaya. He needs to see the mass exodus of the leaders and declaration by senior politicians about retirement from the active politics as an opportunity. He can project this election as a fresh start for the INC in the State. In fact, winning elections with a set of new face is not a tough task provided the candidate selection is intelligent. This move will also help INC overcome anti-incumbency. The huge split in votes among multiple parties will also work to the advantage of the INC. The fight will be intense in Garo hills, which will provide ample opportunity for the INC to win maximum numbers of the 24 seats in the region. If Dr Sangma wins Garo hills, the INC will once again be the major player in Meghalaya.

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Congress must learn from Gujarat

Congress must learn from Gujarat

The party’s new strategy did yield dividend, but it also showed up the critical gaps that prevented a victory

It will not be wrong to read the loss of Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat as his moral victory and the victory of the BJP as a mere face-saving act. In fact, Team BJP could not manage the rise of politician Rahul and they had to rely on their tallest leader, Narendra Modi, to save the ship.

Modi managed to derail Rahul’s campaign by diverting the focus of voters from development and Patidar agitation to the statements of Kapil Sibal on ‘Ram Mandir’ and Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘Neech’. But the biggest reason for BJP’s success was the new socio-cultural model of United Spectrum of the Hindu Votes (USHV), Saffron Dalits and Reluctant Muslim Voters.

Though there was an undercurrent in favour of the INC and a strong anti-incumbency, the Modi-Shah duo managed to divert voters’ attention to issues like Gujarati Pride and National Security. So, it turned out to be a classic election where the BJP did not win but the INC lost. But why did the INC lose it from a winning position?

Mere Symbolism
The INC mostly believes in politics of symbolism whereas the BJP focuses on on-ground execution and booth level management. Mere symbolism doesn’t work anymore in Indian politics.

The voters now demand honest effort and action. They want dedicated, 24×7 politicians. The INC has to project strong and dedicated national and State level leaders.

Shaky Organisation
10The grand old party lacks the support of on-ground organisation unlike the BJP, which enjoys ideological and on-ground support from the RSS. In the 70s, under the leadership of Sanjay Gandhi, the INC had managed to build a strong organisation with a presence in each district. Such an organisation needs to be built again.

The absence of a dedicated INC cadre in Gujarat was one of the biggest reasons why they failed to mobilise voters and bring them to the booth. An analysis of the voting pattern in Gujarat will find that Reluctant Muslim and Dalit Voters needed the motivation to go to the booth.

Urban Connect
The BJP is popular in urban areas and the INC has a strong rural presence. The INC lost the elections because it failed to connect with the urban voters.

Of the total 42 urban seats in Gujarat, the BJP won 36, while 6 went to the INC. Clearly, the INC failed to convince the urban voters to switch sides.

Candidate Selection
Both the INC and BJP made efforts to woo Dalits, Patidars, and OBCs and the same also reflected in ticket distribution. While the BJP fielded 50 Patidars, 58 OBC, and 13 Dalit candidates, the INC fielded 41 Patidars, 62 OBC and 14 Dalit candidates.

The BJP won because it intelligently selected candidates who could win seats.

Caste Politics Falters
Caste and religion-based politics play a critical role but it is not the only element that influences the voters. In the last few Assembly elections – Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – the INC played caste-based politics and lost all elections.

The classic example is that just after the Babri Masjid demolition, the BJP lost power in three out of four States. The popular belief that India votes at the intersection of caste and cash is not true.

The Indian voter has always shown a preference for non-corrupt alternatives over issues like caste, religion and cash. India also votes at the intersection of development and resilient governance.

The INC is struggling hard to understand the change but the BJP has already incorporated the new equation in their political planning.

Plus Hindutva
While the BJP incorporated the new-age requirement of development and resilient governance, it also did not leave out the old equation of caste and religious politics. This new combination of USHV along with development is working fine with voters.

The honest effort of Rahul Gandhi to project a soft Hindutva image in Gujarat election was probably the first move in aligning the INC towards the new equation of development with USHV.

Confused Alliance
The INC has been outsourcing part of its political campaign to outsiders. In UP, it was outsourced to Akhilesh Yadav and in Gujarat, part of the campaign was outsourced to Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. The message emanating from the alliance with all three caste leaders from different domains was a bit confusing.

But the INC alliance with Hardik worked well as out of 52 seats where Patidar vote share is 20% and more, BJP won 28 seats which is 8 less than the last election, whereas the INC bagged 23, which is 9 more than the last election.

It will only be right to say that Rahul and Hardik Patel have bridged the gap between the Patidar community and the INC but have upset a few other prominent OBCs and Dalits.

Changing Campaign
The INC could have swung the election if they had not changed the storyline. It changed the storyline even before it peaked. Moreover, Team INC lost focus during the last leg of the campaign and kept changing the script.

It is evident from the results that the INC was almost there. It lost 16 seats with a margin of less than 3,000 votes and fell short of 12 seats to majority. If the INC and Team Rahul had not diverted from the script of development, social and cultural growth, and the new image of liberal Hindutva, they would have won the election by a good margin.

But it is still an impressive outcome as Rahul Gandhi was taking Narendra Modi head-on in his home State. The fight was not only about the image and might of two national leaders but also between the mighty campaign machinery of the BJP and yet-to-evolve campaign team of the INC.

Rahul Gandhi and Team INC fought their most challenging election battle without a well-prepared on-ground activation team and disciplined cadre.

The lessons from this battle will hold them in good stead.

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Why Congress came close in Gujarat

Why Congress came close in Gujarat

A deep reading of the party’s campaign shows that it may have hit upon a template that could restore its primacy

In the recent Gujarat Assembly election, the BJP won 99 seats, seven more than the magic figure of 92 in a House of 182. The INC secured 77 seats while its allies got another three. The NCP, which fought alone, got a seat and Independents won two.

This election represents a key moment in Indian politics. On the one hand, it once again proved the robustness of the Gujarat model of governance. The incumbent government, which faced the economic challenges of Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation, social challenge of caste revolt and agrarian distress, political challenge of a weak local BJP leadership, and 22 years of anti-incumbency, retained the State for the sixth time.

On the other hand, this election saw the revival of opposition and rise of a strong opposition leader – Rahul Gandhi. Rahul had four major wins — one, exposing the Gujarat model of governance, two, establishing an image of liberal Hindutva, three, stitching an alliance with three upcoming leaders – Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, and four, resurgence of the Nehruvian model of election campaign management.

Exposing Gujarat Model
Rahul Gandhi put all his might in this elections. It was his aggression that helped the INC build a euphoria against the BJP. The Congress president started the campaign with the slogan ‘Vikas gando thayo che’. The success of the campaign exposed the chinks in the BJP’s claims of development and forced it to rethink its campaign strategy.

Rahul also managed to penetrate his message to the influential trader community by attacking demonetisation, failed economic policies and bad implementation of GST. He gave a new name to the GST – Gabbar Singh Tax — and an impactful campaign around it forced the Modi government to amend the tax slabs. This was the first big win of Rahul in challenging the established image of the Gujarat model of governance.

Liberal Hindutva
The BJP has been projecting the image of the INC as pro-Muslim and effectively using it to polarise the electorate. In the Gujarat election, Rahul did not provide any opportunity for the BJP to polarise the election.

He kept Muslims out of the political discourse and instead experimented with the image of liberal Hindutva. He visited multiple temples during the campaign. This new avatar influenced voters and helped the INC win sizable votes.

New Political Alliance
In the game of caste politics, the INC had an edge over the BJP. Rahul successfully managed to win support of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. The trio enjoyed good support of the Patidars, OBC and Dalit votes and the same influenced voters’ turnout as well.

Rahul with the support of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh managed to consolidate the Patidars, OBC and Dalit vote bank. This was Rahul’s second big alliance after the alliance with Akhilesh Yadav.

Resurgence of Nehruvian Model
The INC historically has been the party of the urban elite, upper castes – Brahmins and Thakurs, who maintained their alliance with the local communities. This election witnessed the INC going back to its roots and core strength.

We witnessed the resurgence of the Nehruvian model backed by the support of THAMs — Thakurs, Dalits (Harijans), Tribals (Adivasis) and Muslims.

While there is no problem with the new emerging equation, it needs to be implemented well. In Gujarat, the INC leadership failed to implement it. If the party implements the new equation on ground with efficiency, they will win most of the States that go to polls this year.

The Gujarat election also saw a tectonic shift in the way the INC has been managing campaigns in the last two decades. This shift forced the BJP to change its campaign. Only time will tell if the change in INC’s campaign management is a long-term strategy or just a tactical move to win Gujarat.

New Social, Cultural Vote Bank
The Gujarat results have challenged the established Gujarat model, which was developed and nurtured by Narendra Modi over the years. The model is not only about economic development and good governance but also about the emergence of a new social and cultural vote bank – United Spectrum of the Hindu Votes (USHV).

If we analyse the last few Gujarat elections, we will see the rise of USHV and fall of caste-based politics. The emergence of USHV resulted in the rise of two new prominent groups – Saffron Dalits and Reluctant Muslim Voters. In the past, the USHV had liberated Gujarat from opportunistic caste dynamics.

Through an intelligent and aggressive campaign, Rahul managed to disturb this USHV equation but the damage was managed by the rise in the number of Saffron Dalits and Reluctant Muslim Voters.

The INC tried its best to cultivate socially and economically dominant castes like Jats in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra, Lingayats in Karnataka and Patels in Gujarat. The experiment of exploring new caste equations has not worked well for the INC. The party lost almost all the States where it experimented with socially and economically dominant castes.

Nurturing a new socio-cultural equation is not easy. It requires astute political acumen, huge operational skills and on-ground presence. The BJP stitched USHV as it had the dynamic leadership of Modi as well as political shrewdness and booth management skills of Amit Shah. The INC will have to work on building its cadre, leadership and presence before experimenting with new caste equations.

In many ways, the Gujarat result is a huge loss for the BJP though it got the mandate to rule the State for another five years. Rahul Gandhi made a big dent on the established vote bank of the BJP. It will not be wrong to read the loss of Rahul Gandhi as his moral victory and the victory of the BJP as a
mere face-saving act.

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Rahul has a tough task

Rahul has a tough task

Turning around the party that is moribund and out of sync with the changing social dynamics will be herculean

In 1998, Sonia Gandhi inherited a very weak Indian National Congress (INC). The party was in power in a mere four States, though it still had 114 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Under her leadership, the party won 14 States in the very first year. She helped stitch alliances with political parties that shared diverse political ideologies and guided the INC to victory in the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

The task wasn’t easy for Sonia since she was not a natural politician. In fact, it will not be wrong to say that she too was a reluctant politician just like Rahul Gandhi but after she took charge of the party, she emerged as one of the finest politicians of our times.

The most commendable characteristic of her political journey was a deliberate attempt to maintain a low profile and avoid any ad hoc remarks, both in public and private conversations with party members. This helped her escape all negative political dialogues.

Little Growth
Her second most important characteristic was not challenging the established political set-up. Instead, she chose to optimally utilise the experience and loyalty of her core team — Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Janardan Dwivedi and others. This team, nurtured by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, virtually ran the party on her behalf.

It won’t be off the mark to state that while Sonia survived on the core team for over two decades, she did not focus on building new leaders. This myopic act created a huge leadership deficit across the party, both at the Centre and State levels. Resultantly, today the party is devoid of expertise and loyalty of young and dynamic leaders, which used to be forte of the INC for ages.

Though the party, in the last two decades, under her leadership increased its vote share and presence, it was not achieved just on the merits of INC. It relied on the political arithmetic of smart alliances with regional political parties. The party has also lost credibility over a period of time.

In Bad Shape
Rahul Gandhi has inherited a party that is far worse in shape than it was when Sonia took over. So, Rahul has a tough task at hand to reverse the electoral fortunes. He needs to build the party and cadre from the scratch and instill optimism and hope in them.

When Sonia Gandhi took charge, there were no major corruption charges against important INC leaders. The Nehru-Gandhi family was also not tainted by corruption. Today, the party is stuck with multiple corruption charges and many of its leaders figure among the accused.

So, while Sonia succeeded in rebuilding the INC as a clean, progressive party, the task for Rahul is tougher. He will have to rebrand the party and its image from scratch. This will not be easy since the key leaders during the term of Sonia Gandhi are now aged and at best be his advisers. Rahul will have to build his new team.

Changing Expectations
The dynamics of politics in India has changed over the years. We are now experiencing the rise of young voters who vote at the intersection of caste-religion and development. The INC is still far away from understanding this new dynamics. The party desperately needs young leaders who can sync with the changing political landscape.

Hopefully, things will change soon as Rahul has made it clear that he wants to change the existing set-up and shepherd greater inner-party democracy. He has also started building his own team and that’s why leaders like Mohan Prakash, Madhusudan Mistry, Raj Babbar, Randeep Surjewala, RPN Singh and Divya Spandana are in the forefront.

Moreover, to bring in the best of the leaders, Rahul is espousing internal democracy in the party. The idea that he tested in the Youth Congress in the past will hold him in good stead.

Rebuild Party
When Sonia took charge, she did not have any political image. But Rahul has an image, and he is mostly seen as a politician who lacks charisma, seriousness, depth and leadership qualities. He is considered a reluctant politician. It is critical for the INC and Rahul to break out from this image built by political rivals.

Rahul Gandhi will have to activate the frontal party organisations and build a strong cadre, which is no mean task. It is a known fact that the INC has over the years lost its connect at the ground level. The party has a frontal organisation — Congress Seva Dal — which needs to be strengthened across all wards and panchayats in India.

Rahul Gandhi cannot bring about an instant transformation but he needs to start the process of building the INC cadre. At present, signs of confusion among the cadre and the loyal INC followers are at its peak. This is natural since the INC strength has dwindled to 44 in the Lok Sabha and it has lost almost all major States except Meghalaya, Mizoram, Puducherry, Karnataka and Punjab.

New Hope
The INC is going through its lowest phase and but isn’t the night darkest before the dawn? Perhaps, this big dip offers the opportunity to ring in change quickly and cohesively. The party needs radical and innovative changes for infusing confidence among its cadre and regaining the trust of the people.

With Rahul Gandhi taking over as the president of the 132-year-old INC, there is a new enthusiasm among its cadre and loyalists. At the same time, there are apprehensions about how the party will shape up under his leadership. The true test of Rahul Gandhi will be to leverage the new enthusiasm and use it as a springboard to revive the INC.

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Karnataka: A hung Assembly on the horizon

Karnataka: A hung Assembly on the horizon

During the last Assembly elections in Karnataka, the BJP was a splintered house and this made the task of the INC easy. In fact, the BJP in Karnataka, for long, has been struggling with leadership issues between BS Yeddyurappa and KS Eshwarappa. This has also damaged the morale of the party workers in the State.

But in recent times, the leadership issues in Karnataka have been managed very well. The BJP in Karnataka is now not just a party of BS Yeddyurappa and KS Eshwarappa. Other leaders like HN Ananth Kumar, Jagadish Shettar, DV Sadananda Gowda, R Ashoka and S Suresh Kumar have also gained prominence, thereby broadbasing the party’s leadership in the State.

Nurturing Leadership
Moreover, after the last Assembly elections, the BJP central leadership tried to resolve issues by nurturing young leaders and attracting prominent mass leaders from the INC and the JDS. The party has attracted many heavyweights like SM Krishna – one of the tallest leaders of Gowda community, Srinivas Prasad – a prominent Dalit leader, Jaya Prakash – a strong Bunt leader and Kumara Bangarappa – a popular leader of the Idiga community.

The party has also created a second rung leadership that connects it with all prominent castes in Karnataka and now has a fair representation of all prominent castes viz CT Ravi – a Vokkaliga, V Sunil Kumar – an Idiga, Shobha Karandlaje – a Bunt-Vokkaliga, and Prahlad Joshi – a Brahmin.

The party has a strong vote share in coastal Karnataka and after the joining of Bunt leader Jaya Prakash, it has only grown in strength. Similarly, it has a strong base in Bombay Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka and may win most of its seats there. But with the help of new leaders, the BJP must increase its vote share in south Karnataka where it has lagged behind.

If all its leaders work in tandem, the BJP can get close to forming a government. They may still need to join hands with a few independents or JDS to form a stable government.

Fading Fortress of JDS
The biggest challenge for the JDS is its positioning. The JDS is considered as a party of a single community – Vokkaligas, run by a political family. This positioning, one one hand is its biggest strength owing to its vote bank, but on the other hand, hampers its growth and stops it from emerging as a pan-Karnataka party.

While we are witnessing the rise of regional political parties across India, Karnataka is witnessing a decline in the popularity of regional parties. The JDS, the only prominent regional party in Karnataka, has reduced itself to a party of agriculture and Vokkaligas. Its core vote bank — the Vokkaligas — too seems to be shifting their loyalty as they see the rise of DK Shivakumar in the INC. Moreover, urban Karnataka believes that HD Kumaraswamy is not a very progressive leader.

It is also popularly believed that the JDS leadership is losing control over its local leadership. The same is reflected in the conduct of MLAs Zameer Ahmed Khan, Akhand Srinivasa Murthy, Balakrishna, Chaluvarayaswamy, Bheema Naik, Iqbal Ansari and Ramesh Bandisiddegowda, who voted against the party guidelines during the last Rajya Sabha elections. These rebel MLAs have decided to shift to the INC. The rebel leaders have raised issues related to the growing perception of it being a family run party and its leadership. Amid all these controversies, the party has lost a good number of mass leaders and voters’ trust.

But this is not the first time that the JDS is facing such challenges. In the past, the core vote bank of the party had backed former Prime Minister Deve Gowda despite odds. The leadership of Deve Gowda has been the biggest strength of the party. I am sure that in the ensuing election too, with the help of his loyal followers, he will manage to retain most of the current Assembly seats.

The JDS enjoys a strong vote share in Mandya, Mysuru and in the Hyderabad Karnataka region but has little or no presence beyond these regions. Though the party has scope to do well under the guidance of Deve Gowda, it is not innovative and aggressive enough. It is reluctant to explore new equations to win additional vote bank.

The Next Election
The next election is going to be an intense triangular fight among the INC, BJP, and the JDS. A pre-poll alliance is mostly a big no for all political parties but a post-poll alliance may be an option.

If one were to go by the popular sentiments, we are likely to witness a hung Assembly and JDS and INC will join hands to form the government. But politics makes strange bedfellows and I believe that it will be BJP-JDU government and not an INC-JDU if there is a hung Assembly.
An arrangement between the BJP and JDS sounds impossible as we all believe that BS Yediyurappa must not have forgotten the betrayal of HD Kumaraswamy. But we must understand that Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy are seasoned politicians and they would align the political equation to their benefit. The BJP central team will also not let go of the opportunity and find out a win-win for both Kumaraswamy and Yediyurappa.

Most importantly, it will be advantage JDS if they join BJP in case of a hung Assembly. The BJP-JDS combination will be a win-win alliance for municipality, State government, as well as for the Centre.

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