Congress’ Distant Goal


Rather thinking of 2019, Team Rahul should first focus on how to retain Karnataka and then after make plans for wresting BJP ruled Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan

By Asit Manohar

Having won both Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now in power in 19 out of 29 Indian states, the best performance by any Indian political party since 1993, when the Congress or allied parties ran 18 out of the then 26 states.

But, while the BJP’s performance in Gujarat–where it lost 16 seats, declining from 115 to 99 —may not be satisfactory to itself and reveals future electoral risks, it may not herald a Congress comeback in the 2019 general elections. This has been Congress’s best performance in Gujarat since 1995, in contrast to the BJP, which won the least seats in Gujarat since it first came to power 22 years ago — a report that the IndiaSpend published on December 18, 2017. In Himachal Pradesh, BJP won 44 of 68 assembly seats with 48.8 percent of the vote, the party’s, the best and second-best performances, respectively in the state, we reported.

While it is not very unexpected or surprising that a long-time incumbent party would be at the receiving end, the performance of the BJP must surely be disappointing to the BJP itself because it banked upon Gujarat as its backyard, particularly because of the fact that the prime minister belongs to that state. The BJP had also, for a long time, claimed that its Gujarat model of development is far better than that in any other state. In this backdrop, it is indeed embarrassing for the party to have just about survived. The most significant takeaway then is simply this: BJP is not invincible and that it is subject to electoral upsets like any other party.

The Congress party in Gujarat does not have any organizational depth. As such, the improved performance of the party, though accrued through negative vote, is also in good measure due to the efforts of Rahul Gandhi. While this is good news for the Congress, its revival would depend upon how it strengthens its organization and what broader narrative it communicates to voters.

The BJP has retained its hold on urban Gujarat, such as Ahmedabad, Surat, and Rajkot. In the rural areas of Saurashtra and Kutch, votes swung in favour of the Congress. The BJP has won 55 of 73 (75.3 percent) urban seats. The Congress won 18. But in predominantly rural areas, the Congress won 62 of 109 seats (56.8 percent), while the BJP won 43. What does this say about the urban-rural divide?

To the extent that large populations live in cities, the Congress needs to urgently create networks in urban areas balance its social profile. At the same time, both in Gujarat and in many more developed states, the divide between urban and rural populations reflects the anxieties and deep urban-rural fault lines. This is indicative of lopsided development and an imbalance in the economy. No party seems to have a clue to bridging this chasm.

Sensing None Of The Above (NOTA) received over half a million votes (551,580), or 1.8 percent of 30.4 million votes polled. Readers here can be guessing how significant is the role of NOTA in elections? For such readers, gross numbers of NOTA are misleading. In other elections too, NOTA was the option chosen by around 2 percent of voters. So, while it remains to be investigated what motivates these voters to vote NOTA and who they are, at the moment, it does not seem to have any larger significance for the Gujarat outcome.

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP won 44 of 68 assembly seats with a vote share of 48.8 percent, up from 38.47 percent in 2012. This is the best-ever performance by the BJP in terms of vote share, since it first contested elections in the state in 1982. So, it’s appropriate to ask whether the Modi wave helped the BJP in Himachal or not? In Himachal, the contribution of Modi is undeniable, but two things must be kept in mind: One, there is a long history of the two parties alternating (with one another), and, two, the performance of the Congress government has been quite ordinary. These factors surely affected the outcome.

After Gujarat and Himachal, now the fulcrum of politics has shifted down south in Karnataka where Congress Party would be once again under a severe test. Any projection of state election outcomes at this stage is only bound to be wild. The Congress government in Karnataka is relatively strong at the moment and yet, communal appeal, winning over Lingayats etc can be the key instruments in the BJP’s armour.

The focus on so-called next-gen voters is myopic. Modi did not succeed only because of young voters. It is the ability to create realizable aspirations and the ability to perform when in power that matters most. The overemphasis on Rahul is both unjustified and uncalled for. It is the party that has to become active not just Rahul Gandhi.

Right now, thinking of 2019 would be a ‘Himalayan Blunder’ for the ‘Grand Old Party.’ The Congress comeback in 2019 is a distant goal. Their immediate objective would be to retain power in Karnataka and then wrest power in the three BJP-ruled states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) at the end of 2018. As mentioned earlier, organizational rejuvenation is a critical condition (for a Congress comeback), and that can happen only when the top leadership presents its followers with a clear vision or ideological anchor. Merely opposing the BJP is not enough. Both on the question of inclusiveness and of economy, the party will have to clearly indicate what it stands for and be able to communicate that to its rank and file.

The Congress President must remember that 2019 is not likely to be swayed by Narendra Modi and ‘Modi Wave.’ Though, Modi will play an important role in next general elections, being the most acceptable leader, Modi may go beyond promises and acerbic demagoguery. The Gandhi scion and his new team need to understand that in 2019, voters will be curious about what is actually achieved in last five years of Modi government.