Can a resurgent Congress build on the handsome victory in the Hindi heartland?
For the general election, the Congress and its allies will have to present a credible alternative vision of India instead of just an anti-Modi agenda.
- Total Shares
Political parties and politicians have a nasty habit of resurrecting themselves after their obituaries have been written. On December 11, the Indian National Congress proved this maxim by pulling off its biggest victory in four-and-a-half years, winning the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
It won these crucial Hindi heartland states in straight fights with the BJP. This Phoenix-like revival came after its worst-ever electoral defeat in the May 2014 Lok Sabha election and electoral routs in 11 state assembly elections since then. Anti-incumbency was of course a major factor. Two of these states – Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – had been BJP bastions for 15 years and the Congress had no real alternative vision to sell except perhaps a change of management.
Rajasthan has a record of sorts of alternating regimes. Besides, the frosty relations between the outgoing chief minister Vasundhara Raje and the BJP's top brass didn't help their cause. One constantly heard that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was popular, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was not.
In Chhattisgarh, the party machinery was ponderous, leaving Chief Minister Raman Singh out of touch with ground reality. In Madhya Pradesh, the tenacious and popular chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was defeated – narrowly, one must add – despite rolling out several pro-poor schemes like the Sambal Yojana. For the BJP, the defeats demand introspection and should serve as a wake-up call for several reasons as they come in the Hindi heartland which is supposedly their stronghold.
Anti-incumbency aside, agricultural distress and unemployment were clearly burning issues in the elections of overwhelmingly agrarian states. Moreover, the BJP's much-touted central schemes for farmers and the poor are not having the desired effect. Lofty announcements cannot replace delivery.
India Today cover story, Game On for 2019, for December 24, 2018.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats from these three states. With the next Lok Sabha poll just five months away and the party once again facing anti-incumbency, they will need an extraordinary poll strategy to firewall this seat tally. Of course, it can be argued that state elections are different from the general election. The Indian electorate is mature enough to know the difference. However, this is no time for the party to be complacent.
There is speculation that building the Ram temple in Ayodhya might now become an electoral issue for the party. This is a divisive road fraught with danger. It is far removed from the agenda of development and good governance for which the BJP was voted to power in 2014.
The party should see how emphatically the electorate has rejected such campaigns in these state elections. India today has other aspirations. Although building a temple in Ayodhya legally and peacefully may have some utility, as a vote catcher, I believe, it has lost its currency. Besides the victories, the good news for the Congress has been the revival of its leadership.
Party president Rahul Gandhi campaigned doggedly and toured the states much more extensively than Prime Minister Modi. However, Rahul is yet to become a formidable national electoral brand like Modi even if he has learnt to attack the prime minister relentlessly.
Often pilloried for his malapropisms and political naivete, in this election, he has displayed political acumen worthy of BJP president Amit Shah.
Rahul made winnability of candidates the sole focus, refused to yield to pressures over ticket distribution and deftly got young leaders and party veterans on the same page, ensuring they didn't undercut each other.
In Rajasthan, he kept veteran Ashok Gehlot away from the spirited Sachin Pilot. In MP, he got Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath to work together while making Jyotiraditya Scindia the face of the campaign.
His strategy came unstuck only in Telangana where Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao's landslide swept away the TDP-Congress alliance. The praja kutami, however, remains a stepping stone for the mahagathbandhan. Above all, these victories have destroyed the invincibility myth of the Modi-Shah duo. Our cover story, Game On for 2019, put together by our correspondents in Delhi, Jaipur, Raipur, Hyderabad and Bhopal, explains the reasons behind the rise of the Congress, the fall of the BJP in these polls and the road ahead to the 2019 general election. For the general election, the Congress and its allies will have to present a credible alternative vision of India instead of just an anti-Modi agenda.
It would be imprudent to suggest that this defeat marks the beginning of the end for the BJP. It has definitely been wounded in these assembly elections. But wounded tigers can be doubly ferocious and dangerous.
With a revived Congress, a bitter battle can be expected in 2019. We live in interesting times.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Game On for 2019, for December 24, 2018.)