A dismal performance in Gujarat and a comfortable victory in Himachal Pradesh—the two state elections proved to be a mixed bag for the Congress. While the party never expected to win in Gujarat, its performance has dipped significantly when compared to the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections where it won 77 seats and had a vote share of 41.4 per cent. This time around, the Congress won just 17 seats and a had a vote share of 27.3 per cent. In Himachal Pradesh, the party has won 40 seats with a vote share of 43.8 per cent, a major increase from its 21 seats and 41.7 per cent vote share of 2017.
While the two states have different political histories, and immediate contexts, there can be some relevant takeaways for the Congress from the verdict of both.
Himachal: Localised Campaign But With A Counter-Narrative To BJP
In Himachal Pradesh, Congress led a hyper-localised campaign, with a focus entirely on state-specific issues such as unemployment, the old pension scheme, woes of the apple-belt farmers. Even when national issues such as the Agniveer scheme were invoked, it was because Himachal Pradesh sends hundreds of youths in the army every year and it too directly tied with the unemployment problem of the state.
But more than merely focusing on local issues, the Congress didn’t just critique the sitting BJP government’s performance and try to play on the anti-incumbency, but also actively provided a counter-narrative. Its campaign theme of ‘Himachal, Himachaliyat aur Hum’, focused on the specific brand of religiosity prevalent in the state, and emphasised that it hasn’t been captured by BJP’s hindutva politics. This was a subtle but significant defining arc given to the overall campaign.
Priyanka Gandhi, who led multiple campaigns here, was a good fit for the face of the Congress in a state like Himachal Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi stayed completely away from the state, not visiting it even once, which raised many eyebrows. But Priyanka’s campaign was largely unobtrusive with no big ideological messaging and worked primarily on encouraging the cadre and amplifying the same messaging that was put forth by the local leadership, thereby underlining a consistency in the campaign theme.
Of course, there were major loopholes in the BJP’s Himachal Pradesh campaign, such as its emphasis on ‘double engine ki sarkar’ and nationalising an election of a state known to vote on local issues. These played to the advantage of the Congress. Moreover, while both Congress and BJP saw rebellion by its disgruntled leaders, the Congress was still able to manage it much better.
Unorganised Campaigning, No Hustle Or Concerted Effort in Gujarat
Unlike in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress wasn’t able to provide any state-wide narrative in Gujarat. The welfare promises were largely aped from the AAP, and there was a complete lack of originality or hustle in the party’s Gujarat campaign.
This resulted in it losing even its stronghold — the tribal belt of the state.
The campaigning seemed haywire and unorganised, one primary reason behind which could be the absence of late Congress leader Ahmed Patel. This is the first state election since his demise in 2020, and the lacklusture performance reflects how there is a gaping void with no leader even attempting to take up the responsibilities that Patel fulfilled for decades. He was known for his astute ticket distribution, organisational skills and essential back-room strategising during elections.
While the BJP has been in power in Gujarat for 27 years and thus is leaps and bounds ahead of all other parties in resources, the Congress failed to exploit whatever resources it did have to the fullest of extent. For instance, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who won his Vadgam seat wasn’t used for state-wide Congress campaigning nearly as much as he could have—especially in reserved seats. His being in jail could be a reason for this. Earlier in May this year, Rahul Gandhi had held a rally in the tribal belt with Mevani in the front and centre, called the ‘Adivasi Satyagraha’. The rally received good traction at the moment, but wasn’t replicated again in the run up to the election or closer to the election date.
What This Means For The Future of Congress
The election results will help build two major narratives.
One, Himachal Pradesh has become the first state election in which the Congress defeated the BJP since 2018 (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan), this will help set the narrative that the party can in fact put up a winning fight in assembly polls. It may also give the necessary boost to the party cadre at a national level, working behind the scenes to make bharat jodo yatra a success. On the flipside, it isn’t a good look on Rahul Gandhi that the one state he didn’t go to campaign in, the Congress won.
Two, unlike in Himachal Pradesh, where it was largely a 2-party contest, in Gujarat it was widely expected that the AAP will attempt to eat into the Congress’ votes. In such a circumstance, it was imperative for the party to protect its existing voteshare and seats. While the Congress has retained the number 2 spot in the state, the depleted figures don’t look very promising for the future. Moreover, it’s become clear that AAP’s intent is to replace the Congress as the primary opposition in the country, and present itself as a viable alternative to anti-BJP voter base. While they haven’t succeeded in that endeavor yet, if they do manage to do so in the next few elections, the Congress will have most to lose.