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Saturday, July 02, 2022

Why the BJP needs the Congress, not a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’

Now that the BJP's rule covers almost 50 per cent of the country's population, how relevant is the “Congress mukt” slogan for the party? Will it have the same game-changing effect on the electoral scene, as some BJP leaders said it did in 2014?

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: May 16, 2022 4:47:44 pm
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and PM Narendra Modi.

In January 2014, with the Lok Sabha election scene heating up, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, had announced: “Congress Mukt Bharat! This is not a mere slogan but the firm determination of the people of India.”

Eight years have gone by since then with Modi and the BJP now in complete charge at the Centre. The party, which was in power in seven states then is now the ruling party in 17 states and one Union Territory, either on its own or with allies, restricting the Congress to just two states, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. (The Congress is part of the ruling alliance in Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu, too.)

The question then is: Now that the BJP’s rule covers almost 50 per cent of the country’s population, how relevant is the “Congress mukt” slogan for the party? Will it have the same game-changing effect on the electoral scene, as some BJP leaders said it did in 2014?

A section of BJP leaders think it’s time to give up the slogan, including those who are close to the party’s ideological parent, the RSS.

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Speaking at a function in Goa recently, Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep S Puri said, “We do not want the Congress party to completely disappear. We need an opposition.”

To be sure, Puri’s remarks may not be the bellwether of the BJP’s strategy on the issue, but since the bureaucrat-turned-politician is known to have the PM’s ear, his remarks are unlikely to have been made off the cuff.

In fact, Modi has made his stand on regional parties amply clear, often suggesting that “too many” regional parties may not be in the country’s interest. At an informal interaction after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he said that an entirely Congress mukt Bharat may not be a feasible idea, adding that an India without the Grand Old Party won’t be a good idea as the Congress is the only party with a presence across the country.

Later, on more than one occasion, the Prime Minister has clarified that when he used the expression ‘Congress mukt’, he wasn’t talking of the elimination of the party from the political scene but about ridding the country of the culture and way of thinking that’s attributed to the Congress party.

What has also probably got senior BJP leaders to review their “dislike for the Congress” – as a senior party leader put it – is the emergence of a new opposition in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

In an informal chat with party leaders during the last Budget Session of Parliament, a senior BJP leader and former Union Minister had said: “We can no longer afford the Congress mukt Bharat slogan. We cannot let parties like the AAP grow and win in states. It’s not good for India.” At least three MPs belonging to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the Congress is a much diminished party, agreed with the leader.

It’s evident that what worries these BJP leaders is that the AAP is a party they have been struggling to bracket into any ideological space. The political strategies unleashed by the Arvind Kejriwal-led party make it clear that the AAP is taking a leaf out of BJP’s book – be it on nationalism or Hindutva – as it attempts to emerge as an alternative to the BJP. Though the AAP has no representation in the Lok Sabha after Bhagwant Mann resigned his seat to become Punjab Chief Minister, AAP leaders love to cite the BJP’s remarkable growth trajectory – from being a party of two in 1984 to its current strength of over 300 seats.

The AAP’s much-touted governance model – stressing on populist or welfare measures – has also been giving the BJP a run for its ‘vikas’ model.

Party insiders say that in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s rhetoric on a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ is likely to be less shrill. Though with the party getting ready for an electoral battle in key states, including Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress is its main rival, the BJP’s attacks are likely to focus on the party till the end of next year.

“Elimination of the Congress party from the political scene should not be BJP’s mission now. We need to have a national party that is a strong opposition,” said a senior party leader.

A number of old hands in the BJP point out that the party faces an uphill task in states where the Congress has diminished in stature. These are states where strong regional parties have filled in the space vacated by the Congress over the years and decades – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Kerala, etc. The leaders point out that electoral arithmetic clearly proves that the BJP’s best chances of winning are in states where the Congress is powerful and is in direct contest with the BJP.

What the BJP needs is a rival – one that can be held as a contrast to the party. And it’s here that the Congress will prove more useful than the AAP or any other regional party.

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