Cut & Thrust: Beware the ides of March

Cut & Thrust: Beware the ides of March
Cut & Thrust: Beware the ides of March

The game is truly afoot now. Gorakhpur and Phulpur are not like the isolated bypoll victories in Rajasthan and MP, these are different for they are slapbang in the middle of a polarised Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh.  SP’s Nagendra Pratap Singh Patel won Phulpur by 59,613 votes, followed by BJP’s Kaushlendra Singh Patel and Congress’ Manish Mishra. Similarly the red caps’ Praveen Kumar Nishad won the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat by a margin of 21,961 votes. The subliminal message is that if you have to stop the Modi-Shah juggernaut, you have to regroup and combine forces on an anti communal front.

It is ironical that for PM Modi and party president Amit Shah, vanquishing is not really part of their lexicon. Since PM Modi has been in electoral politics, he has only been defeated thrice — Bihar, Delhi and Punjab where he was a junior coalition partner. Bihar, he managed to overturn and it can be likened to a coup d’état, for, without a shot being fired, he pouched power through Nitish Kumar duplicity. The much delayed bypolls to Phulpur and Gorakhpur were perceived to be a barometer, a weather cock to Yogi Adityanath’s last minute controversial anointment as state CM and his brand of majoritarian politics.

Phulpur and Gorakhpur can now be termed as a defining moment. In the ground of tactical warfare, what constitutes the centrifuge is any position, building, or section of land that is essential to the success of a military operation. For a division, it could be a major transport hub that will cut the enemy off from supplies, or a section of large hills or small mountains particularly suited for defending a given area. On the squad level, ground of tactical importance could be a watchtower or high window overlooking a battle zone. It could be a section of a main road, without which the enemy cannot move heavy mechanised forces through a city effectively. It could even be a dense, easy to hide in section of forest. It all depends on the situation. Kargil happened because Pakistan realised that the best way to cut off Leh from the Indian Union was to control the upper reaches. For the BJP, these two seats vacated by the CM Yogi Adityanath and deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya was akin to that tactical position which it had to hold on to come hell or high water. To lose both so ignominiously to the Bua-Bhatija combine is sacrilege. Arrogance, it is said, often leads to hubris. Cock a hoop overwins in successive state elections, perhaps election managers at BJP’s new HQ were blindsided by the pent up fury of the electorate in these two constituencies. 

History doesn’t forgive people who ignore it. For those who do, they do it at their own peril. Just as Allahabad was many moons ago. And I will explain that in a bit.

Politics is equally about messaging and communication. Imagine Gorakhpur was Adityanath’s bastion, he held the fortress for 19 years, so this is not any ordinary victory. And before him his spiritual guru and grand uncle Mahant Avaidyanath of Gorakhnath Math was four-time MP from Gorakhpur and five time MLA from Maniram assembly segment. Phulpur is rich historically in terms of past electoral hurrahs. Jawaharlal Nehru was elected thrice from Phulpur, he once defeated Ram Manohar Lohia here. BJP won this prestigious seat for the first time in 2014 when Maurya came through with a thumping 3 lakh plus margin, polling 52 per cent of the vote. Dharam Raj Singh Patel of SP came second with 20 per cent while cricketer Mohd Kaif representing the Congress brought in the rear with a mere six per cent.

Politics is also about the art of the impossible and the rag tag bobtail Congress has to convince the rest of the fragmented and egotistical opposition that coming together as a rainbow coalition or a Republic of Kichdi is the only way forward. Pertinently, the 2017 assembly hustings results provided some ray of relief for a combined opposition. I must add this is an empirical assumption and could be optically incorrect, for in India we have a first past the post system winner in electoral politics. In the five Phulpur assembly constituencies (2017 results listed above), except for Allahabad North, where the Congress candidate Anurag Narayan Singh polled 31.39 per cent of the vote cast, in the other four constituencies it was SP and BSP which together polled more than the winning BJP (four) and one Apna Dal candidates.

Hypothetically, the combined heft of the opposition could have swung the elections away from the BJP. Let us also understand the nature of the beast — both in 2014 and 2017 —  it was the Hindu vote which aggregated behind Narendra Modi and not necessarily the BJP. It was an aandhi of epic proportions, hitherto not seen in Uttar Pradesh. Puttar Pradesh lay at Modi’s feet after the rout of a fractious SP and a diminishing BSP debilitated by demonetisation in these assembly elections.

Phulpur is adjacent to Allahabad from where VP Singh launched his 1988 anti-Rajiv Gandhi campaign after leaving the Congress along with Arun Nehru and Arif Mohd Khan. After giant slayer Amitabh Bachchan had vanquished Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna in the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi tsunami and then deserted the party, it was VP Singh who chose to fight from Allahabad in the 1988 by election. Pitted against him was Lal Bahadur Shastri’s son Congress’s Sunil Shastri who he defeated. This was the beach head for a rising VP Singh and in 1989, he fought from Fatehpur against another of Shastriji’s sons — Hari Krishna Shastri. Again he won. Allahabad thus became symbolic for VP Singh returned to parliament after leaving (or being kicked out of) the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet and then went onto form Jan Morcha and then Janata Dal with 143 seats and forged the first minority government in India supported by the BJP and the Communists in what can only be called an anachronism.

The government subsequently collapsed under the contradictions that myriad ideologies brought to bear and when Advani’s Rath Yatra was detained under the National Security Act in Samastipur by Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav. With it ended the National Front experiment. Let us remain mindful of the fact that the seeds of rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi’s corruption scandals was unfurled in Allahabad in the 1988 by-election. Viewed from the prism of history, a debilitated opposition can hope to revive its fortunes, though it appears unlikely that they will be able to make a fist of it.

Interestingly, Nehru’s sister Vijay Lakshmi Pandit also won twice from Phulpur, as did VP Singh himself as far back as 1971 while Kamala Bahuguna won in the 1977 tidal wave mandate against Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. The duo of SP-BSP have chosen to make Phulpur a seminal election, one in which they have made a statement of intent. But as they say, jo dar gaya woh mar gaya. One doesn’t want to rain on the full of themselves Opposition’s tattered parade, but it has already wasted two massive opportunities — Mandsaur and taking up the farmer distress cause and more recently making Nitish Kumar the face of the united opposition. Phulpur and Gorakhpur represent that ground of tactical warfare which can lay the seeds of a turnaround.

Phulpur and Gorakhpur reverses for BJP present a third big window of opportunity in a short span of a year, frittering this away will be catastrophic for a fragmented and clueless Opposition, which seemingly can’t even combine on the issue of growing communalism, rising intolerance or rabid cow vigilantism.

There is a lesson in Wednesday’s bypoll results, all one has to do is transpose these learnings. The wins are not limited to UP, RJD has won both Jehanabad and Araria as well. To defeat the BJP, egos the size of football fields have to be buried and a dialogue has to begin. Both Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar have taken a lead in the matter, the results are transparent. They speak for themselves. For years, fractured opponents ranged against the Congress couldn’t get a handle on how to curb its growth, now it is an all powerful BJP which an opposition in disarray has to dislodge. Baby steps were taken on Wednesday.