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Supporters of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hold placards as they gather ahead of the announcement of the Maharashtra state election results outside the BJP headquarters in Mumbai on Oct. 24, 2019. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images)

After the Maharashtra, Haryana elections, when I reverted to friends and acquaintances, my personal pool, for an opinion survey, a majority heaved a sigh of relief. This was at variance from the response of this very group during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. There was an unnerving consensus for Narendra Modi. Why? I had asked then. "Well, the Hindu sentiment," said a very friendly member of my welfare association.

Now that the BJP is diminished, why this sigh of relief? Mixing up "pride" in Hinduism with demonstrable "arrogance" of Hindutva power may be the cardinal mistake the Modi-Amit Shah duet have made.

Ultranationalism will give a platform an initial boost to take-off but ultranationalism cannot be sustained over long distances. Boosters en route to stoke nationalist temperature will begin to look like the handiwork of tricksters. One surgical strike on Pakistani terror camps will work wonders in one set of elections. But repeat it on the eve of another election and folks will screw up their noses: "again?" There is, in other words, a decline in credibility as frequency of requirement for nationalism "boosters" increases. In fact, even Article 370 turned out to be a dud cartridge in this electoral round.

The Congress will be justified in taking heart from the results, but it will have to accept many qualifications. Its relatively decent performance in both the states is despite the Gandhi family. That is a problem Congressmen do not like to talk about: how do they discard a dynasty?

Remember how Haryana strongman Bhupinder Singh Hooda inaugurated the Haryana campaign while the party high command, Hamlet like, was sunk in thought? On this electoral showing, Hooda is looking a much taller Congressman than, say, Ahmad Patel, Anand Sharma, Ghulam Nabi Azad, etcetera.

In Maharashtra, the Congress is having to digest a principle it refused to accept during the Lok Sabha elections. It refused to be a junior partner to Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Instead of joining them, on whatever terms available, to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party, it turned upon them, hoping to come up trumps. I heard the BJP sing in chorus: "With such enemies, who needs friends." The Congress was clobbered in the three states.

I wonder what the "janeudhari" Brahmin, Rahul Gandhi, is up to these days other than temple hopping? (Or, has he given up the practice.) Two cameos come to mind. There was Rahul, flanked by Ashok Gehlot and Randeep Surjewala, addressing a post-campaign press conference on the fifth floor of Ahmedabad's Radisson Blu hotel. Someone asked where was the most senior Gujarati Congressman, Ahmad Patel? He had been advised not to appear at the press conference. His presence might give BJP the ammunition to polarize the vote.

The Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala lifted the ban on women of childbearing age to enter the shrine. The RSS smacked its lips. Here was an issue of "aastha,” faith. The cadres would whip up an almighty frenzy if an abiding tradition was breached by the Supreme Court. Congress, which had initially supported the judiciary, found the Hindu card alluring. So, helped by nimble-footed leaders like Shashi Tharoor, the Congress recalibrated its stand until it was indistinguishable from the RSS position. CPI(M) Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stood his ground, mobilized the Ezhavas and so badly undercut the RSS's very own Nair Service Society, that he became unbeatable in two elections where the Nairs were once powerful.

What should the Congress do other than give up? It can call an All India Congress session and hold elections to elect its various bodies, including the Congress Working Committee. It does not adopt this obvious route because the specter of the Tirupati session in 1993 haunts it. P.V. Narasimha Rao heard those results in glum silence. His arch rival Arjun Singh had polled the largest number of votes, followed by Rajesh Pilot, Sharad Pawar, a slate bereft of Brahmins except for the Prime Minister's secretary, Jitendra Prasada. The results were promptly annulled.

There are plenty of wise men in the Congress who, alas, have brought the party to this sorry pass. Some ideas can be tossed up: hold party elections followed by a conclave to chart out a new, realistic course for the party. It must give up its dream of "reviving" to the glory it began to lose as early as 1967, when eight states had non-Congress governments. Now, by its own ineptitude, its mimicking of the Hindu platform, it has caused the BJP's dramatic ascent, indeed, dominance. Its first task should be to strengthen regional forces – exactly as it has done with Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. Its perspective should be a larger federation of regional parties. It will be federalism that will check the phenomenal rise of the BJP. That is the only way to whittle down the idea of a unitary system.

A contributory fact for exposing the BJP's vulnerability has been rural distress, unemployment, nervousness on collapsing banking system, all functions of neo liberal economic policies mingled with a swadeshi urge – neither here nor there. The Congress must consult progressive economists to give shape to a left of center platform, without which distributive justice is not possible in a country which is now globally accepted as 102 in the Global Hunger Index.

Have these results been accepted by the opposition without grumbling about the ruling party's capacity to manipulate EVMs? Not really, because at least 850 EVM-related complaints have been registered with the state election commission. But there is no evidence of a combined opposition movement to abandon EVMs in favor of paper ballots.

Has the Hindutva brigade's trot towards its transformational agenda of a Hindu Rashtra by 2025, the centenary of the RSS, been retarded by these results? There is Kashmir and Ram Temple yet to be played, but how and when? Election results demand one course, Hindu Rashtra another.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal.)

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