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After Losing 3 Hindi Belt States, What's Next for Congress in Run-Up to 2024?

Despite retaining its vote share, Congress has been wiped out across most of North India after Sunday's results.

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The Congress party has effectively been wiped out of most of the Hindi heartland, losing the 2023 state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — all major states in the region. The party is now in power in only one North Indian state: Himachal Pradesh, which accounts for only four Lok Sabha seats. It is also a junior partner in Bihar's ruling alliance. Overall, the Congress’s solo reign is now limited to just three states: Telangana, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh.

While the Telangana victory will come as a big boost to the party’s cadre in the South, the staggering losses in the North will surely send the Congress back to the drawing board, to assess where it went wrong, and more importantly, how it could hamper its 2024 Lok Sabha plans. The losses are also likely to now feature prominently in the INDIA bloc’s talks pertaining to seat-sharing and will impact how much hold, or the lack thereof, the Congress will have on the alliance.

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Congress Vote Share Nearly Same As In 2018, Increase In Rajasthan

While the defeat in the three states is undeniably a bad look on the Congress, the party’s vote share has dropped only marginally in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and has in fact increased in Rajasthan, in comparison to 2018. This is when Congress had won all three states in 2018. The Congress’ vote share has dropped from 40.9 per cent to 40.4 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, and from 43 per cent to 42.2 per cent in Chhattisgarh. Interestingly, Congress’ vote share has increased in Rajasthan from 39.3 per cent in 2018 to 39.53 per cent in 2023.

Despite retaining its vote share, Congress has been wiped out across most of North India after Sunday's results.

A comparison of Congress' performance in the four states in 2018 vs 2023. 

(Kamran Akhter/ The Quint)

These figures are likely to give the party and its cadre in the losing states some hope, especially with the 2024 Lok Sabha polls less than 6 months away.

Praveen Chakravarty, the Chairman of the Congress’ data analytics team, reflecting over the vote share tweeted, “Votes to seats is almost an enigma in India’s multi-party FPTP system!”

That said, in all three states, the BJP’s vote share in 2023 is significantly higher than that of the Congress.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s vote share is higher by 8 percentage points, and in Chhattisgarh by 4 percentage points. The vote share difference between the two parties is least in Rajasthan, by about 2 percentage points.

Despite retaining its vote share, Congress has been wiped out across most of North India after Sunday's results.

A comparison of Congress and BJP's performance in 2023. 

(Kamran Akhter/ The Quint)

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Top Leaders Were Overconfident and Seemingly Disconnected From Ground

Within Congress, there is palpable disarray over what transpired on result day. This is also due to just how confident the party had been in the run up to the polls, particularly in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. So much so, that the Congress leadership had assigned observers and sent them to the three states on Saturday itself, “to coordinate the meetings of the Congress Legislature Party”. This reflects two things: a sense of over-confidence in the party and secondly, a genuine disconnect with what is transpiring on the ground.

The state leadership in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has been accused of not attempting to develop a loyal support base and that can be reflected even in the more granular details of the results. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, nine of the Congress’ ministers, including Deputy Chief Minister T S Singh Deo, lost their seats. In Rajasthan, the Assembly Speaker C P Joshi, who also headed the Congress Manifesto Committee too lost his seat. In MP, while most major Congress players retained their seats, the former CM Kamal Nath who was the face of the party’s campaign in the state, failed to develop either a loyal caste or regional vote-bank outside of Chhindwara.

The Congress party could have made a more informed campaign had it involved its cadre more actively, and also taken heed of the plans that the strategists had in mind.

Congress Might Have To Give More Concessions to INDIA Partners Now

Now, the important question is how these losses will impact the Congress’ fortune and also its preparation in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. For one, the party will likely have to give a lot more concessions to the other INDIA partners, as opposed to what it has been doing so far.

While seat-sharing is always complex and never straightforward, there was quite a bit of exchange of words between Congress and Samajwadi Party ahead of the Madhya Pradesh polls this time. The Congress had refused to share seats with the SP in MP, stating that the party doesn’t have a following there. In turn, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav had accused the Congress of “cheating” and “betrayal” and said that he now knows the INDIA alliance is limited to national level only.

While SP’s performance in MP eventually turned out to be abysmal—the party won zero of the 72 seats it fielded candidates in—it did manage to hurt the Congress in some seats. For instance, in at least five assembly seats in MP, the SP and Congress’ vote share was more than that of the winning BJP.

With Congress now only in power in only one North Indian state, questions will be raised on how much the party can do for INDIA as a whole, and whether it can be trusted to mouth a challenge to the BJP. Soon after the election results on Sunday, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who is also part of the INDIA bloc, told reporters that Congress failed to assess the ground situation in MP. “The situation of the INDIA Alliance in the state elections, if the same continues in the future, then we will not be able to save ourselves... The Congress could not understand the ground situation in Madhya Pradesh. What would have they lost if they had given 5-7 seats to Akhilesh Yadav... They have lost anyway.”

Revival of 'Old Guard Vs New Guard' Question

Bigger questions will also be raised on whether the Congress simply couldn’t grapple with the challenge, or failed to understand the ground sentiment. There is also likely to be a renewed conversation on the old guard vs new guard of the party. In all three losing states, Congress has some of its most veteran leaders in place. The losses will raise a question on whether leaders like Bhupesh Baghel and Kamal Nath failed to keep up with what was churning on the ground. Gehlot seems to have suffered more due to the unpopularity of MLAs than any major resentment against his government.

The party failed to address local issues in the states, for instance, the Adivasi plight in Chhattisgarh that was evident in the protests against the Adivasi killings in Bastar, and the other was the Hasdeo movement against coal mining in northern Chhattisgarh. This cost the party heavily as it has been wiped off in most of the Adivasi belt in the state.

As opposed to this, the one victory that the Congress had was Telangana, where Revanth Reddy, 54, was the face of the party’s campaign and instrumental in its win.

Assembly Polls Not Really A Reflection of Lok Sabha Equations

All three losing states contribute significantly to the Lok Sabha. Rajasthan contributes 25 seats, Madhya Pradesh contributes 29 seats, while Chhattisgarh contributes 11 seats. While the state elections have been dubbed as a ‘semi-final’ ahead of the all-important 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the fact is that very rarely have states voted the same manner in assembly polls and at the national level.

For instance, in Rajasthan, the Congress had won the state elections in 2018 but failed to win even a single seat from the state in the Lok Sabha in 2019, just six months later. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress had formed the government in 2018 but it was reduced to just one seat in the Lok Sabha 2019. The pattern in Chhattisgarh, which was formed in 2000 as a state, is that the BJP has dominated the state at the Lok Sabha level consistently, irrespective of whether the party is in power in the state or not.

Thus, the Congress might be placing its bet on two factors: one, the marginal difference in vote share in the losing states, and the fact that history shows a clear disconnect in the state election results and the Lok Sabha results, no matter how close in time they are conducted. The party will still have to reassess its strategy going ahead, and reconvene with its INDIA partners to brainstorm.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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