The Congress performance in the last set of state elections before the Lok Sabha polls has sent several political messages.
Ending its near eclipse and breathing new life into Opposition attempts to set up a united front against the BJP-led NDA in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress returned to the Hindi heartland with impressive gains in the assembly elections Tuesday, wresting Chhattisgarh from BJP after 15 years. The party looked set to form the government in Rajasthan and, until late evening, was locked in a see-saw battle for power in Madhya Pradesh.
Declaring victory in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and giving the credit to “party workers, farmers, youth and small businesses”, Congress president Rahul Gandhi congratulated those who defeated his party in Telangana and Mizoram and thanked the outgoing chief ministers of BJP-ruled states for their achievements, saying “it is time for change and we will take their work forward”. He said verdict signalled “a resurgent Congress” and that “India needs a new vision”.
As the results came in, it became clear that the Congress has finally managed to buck the agonising trend of electoral reverses and voter alienation — it has lost power in a dozen states since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
A beaming Ashok Gehlot spoke not just for his party in Rajasthan but Congressmen elsewhere too: “People did not have the confidence that anybody can actually defeat Narendra Modi. And today’s victory has dispelled that perception.”
The Congress performance in the last set of state elections before the Lok Sabha polls has sent several political messages. And for the Opposition, there is a significant takeaway — that the BJP under Modi is no longer invincible.
The victory is doubly sweet for the Congress because it is the first time that the party has defeated the BJP in a direct fight since 2014. It came close in Gujarat but the BJP eventually raced past the post. Yet the success in this round pose challenges as well. While Congress leaders feel it will give the party bragging rights vis-a-vis regional parties when it comes to seat sharing, they also admit it also will inject a sense of insecurity among them.
Echoing this sentiment, senior CPI leader D Raja told The Indian Express: “It will strengthen the Congress, also strengthen all secular, democratic parties. Everyone will have to draw lessons and be mutually accommodative and realistic so that the unity of secular and democratic forces is taken forward to ensure the defeat of the BJP in the 2019 elections.”
Leaders in the Opposition said had the Congress tied up with the BSP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the results would not have been so close.
At the same time, the Congress was quick to project the outcome as some sort of a referendum on the Modi government. Even Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, who cashed in on the anti-incumbency mood against the Vasundhara Raje government, were quick to suggest that the reverse countdown for the BJP had begun.
Pilot told The Indian Express that the vote is against the BJP, both in Jaipur and Delhi. “The three states were bipolar states… where the BJP and the Congress fought head to head… if they are losing in all the three, that means the writing is on the wall… the BJP will not be able to form the government in 2019,” he said.
The verdict is also significant because Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan together account for 65 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP had won 62 in 2014 when the Modi wave swept the Hindi heartland.
So, has Rahul Gandhi’s stock gone up? On this day a year ago, Gandhi was elected unopposed as Congress president. Party leaders were quick to attribute the victory to Gandhi’s attacks on the prime minister over issues ranging from the Rafale deal to agrarian distress to unemployment. They also pointed out that the Congress will remain the pivot of the anti-BJP grouping.
Despite the verdict, the Congress organisational strategy in these three states were debatable. Always a divided house in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress put up a united face for once in the state. But that was not the case in Rajasthan. And the results showed. If desperation to end its 15-year exile from power in MP became the glue, a last-minute criteria introduced in Rajasthan to deny tickets to those who had lost consecutive elections in the past proved critical.
“We lost around 20 seats because of that criteria,” a senior Rajasthan Congress leader said, laying the blame at Pilot’s doorstep. He said a veteran like Raghuvir Singh Meena, a CWC member, had to plead with the high command, seeking its intervention. Meena was learnt to have written to the leadership in November, arguing that whenever a criteria other than winnability is made for allotment of party tickets by leaders for their benefits, the party suffers in elections. Meena had cited the outcome of elections since 1993 to back his argument.
Congress leaders from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh admitted that the strategy of giving equal space to Chandrababu Naidu in Telangana backfired. “He should have been in the background. The seat-sharing should have been more tactical. He came to the forefront, bragged that he had built Hyderabad, etc and all that hit the people of Telangana. After all, their fight for a separate state had been against the domination of people from Andhra. We realised it very late. We removed Naidu’s photographs from advertisements and election material in the last leg… some four days before polling… but the damage was done,” a senior party leader said.