The dramatic midnight twists and turns in what should have been an anodyne and colourless Rajya Sabha election from Gujarat tells you one thing about the BJP under Amit Shah: It is in constant poll mode. No election is too small; no seat too inconsequential for the take-no-prisoners approach of the party president and his expansionist ambitions.
But this time, did Shah’s over-enthusiasm end up doing the beleaguered Congress a favour? Did the eventual fight to the finish challenge the BJP’s notion of invincibility? Ahmed Patel, the elusive, influential political secretary to Sonia Gandhi has lived to fight another day and a party — otherwise paralysed by a weird mix of denial and despair, has been forcibly shaken from its stupor.
But hold both the applause and the commiserations just yet. Admittedly the party showed a rare, never-say-die energy in swiftly mobilising the Election Commission when two of its cross voters revealed their ballot was for the BJP; but at the end of the day it is Ahmed Patel who won and not the Congress. Leveraging what one Congressman described as “old equities” Ahmed Patel’s fight to retain his seat was almost entirely an individual battle till the penultimate moments when the party machinery got involved. Till then most Congressmen were busy trying to find some disassociation between Patel and his boss Sonia Gandhi. Had he lost, the defeat would have been pinned at his door; now that he has won, the party wants to share the credit.
If anything, Patel’s victory – met with distinctly noticeable silence on social media by Rahul Gandhi who found time to publicly tweet Venkaiah Naidu but not his own party’s veteran – has exposed the internal fault-lines and the generational collisions within the party. One Congressman said Patel’s victory had pushed Rahul Gandhi “deeper into a shell.” The tenuous relationship between Gandhi and Patel is well known to those who track the Congress. For the past three years amid clichéd forecasts of Rahul Gandhi taking over from his mother, Patel would frequently tell those who met him that most decisions had been taken without him in the loop. Even accounting for characteristic self-deprecation, Patel did not hide the fact that he was not central to the decision-making of Rahul and his sister Priyanka. Equally, Rahul is known to have told people close to him that the Congress needs an “open-heart surgery”; he privately believes that something original can rise only from the ashes of the old-guard politics that leaders like Patel represented. The Gujarat victory proves any such obituary to be vastly premature. In any case the older Congressmen have shown way more spunk than the less-driven, more urbane and distinctly less political younger Turks, whether in Gujarat, or earlier in the year, in Punjab. Far from dislodging them – as the Rahul Gandhi camp may have hoped – the Rajya Sabha polls have guaranteed that the generational confusion in the party will persist. Decisions will continue to fall between what nine-time MP Kamal Nath called, two stools when he plaintively told me in 2015 that no organisation can have two bosses.
The other reason the Congress shouldn’t be celebrating — though Ahmed Patel can — is the party’s failure to build and retain strategic alliances without putting itself at the centre of them. The mystery over whose 44th vote took Patel across the finishing line persists, but it seems likely that Sharad Pawar’s party abandoned the Congress. The loss of Nitish Kumar in Bihar and the NCP in Gujarat could have a domino effect among other regional players. The inability of the Congress to internalise a new reality and shed its entitled attitude to power has led it to over-assert for seats and influence with regional players. Gujarat must teach it otherwise.
Finally, the party will be stuck in the same morass unless it abandons the ‘high command’ culture and idiom. Its Delhi-centric political feudalism (where state leaders have to wait eons to even get the attention of the leadership) will have to move to intra-party federalism if it has to survive. In a state where the Congress has been out of power for three decades, leaders like ShaktiSinh Gohil showed a remarkable appetite for a good fight. Will he be empowered or flung aside as so many others have been before him?
In the end the Congress will have to script a new narrative and be willing to take a backseat to allow other, more rooted leaders to shine in the spotlight. Otherwise, in the long term, Patel’s victory will become more about survival than winning.