Its handsome victory in Karnataka must have made the Congress somewhat confident to face the three more crucial assembly elections in MP, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. For some time now, its record of a face-off with the BJP in bipolar contests has not been very impressive. Therefore, the year-end Assembly elections will be keenly watched. Whether the Congress would equally keenly contest those elections is a key question.
Rejuvenation of Party Cadre, Well-prepared Campaign
A victory often brings confidence and also a misconception that everything that the party did was right. But as we know, each state election has its own flavour and dynamic. So, it is uncertain if the ‘Karnataka model’ can be replicated in MP, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan.
Two things seem to be quite noticeable in the Karnataka outcome: one is the rejuvenation of the party workers and the other is a well-prepared campaign. While the Congress did not allow the elections to turn into a ‘Modi v Rahul’ contest, Rahul Gandhi did remain central to its overarching spectacle.
A small exercise by Resuf Ahmed and Feyaad Allie showing that the Congress fared much better in the areas from which the Bharat Jodo Yatra passed will now become the basis for drawing in the resource generated by the Yatra. How Rahul Gandhi spares time for regular visits to the three states that will face elections may decide the level of support the Congress is able to generate there.
But the most crucial factor will be the reconciliation of factional rivalries with the larger narrative that the party wants to build. In Karnataka, the party was able to project an image of being united, thanks to the temporary truce brokered between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar. But the unyielding tussle after the election would have warned the party of the fragility of such a temporary truce.
The Factionalism Factor
Given Rajasthan’s notoriety of alternating the parties in power, Congress’ task there is anyway uphill. But the continuing feud between Gehlot and Pilot has ensured that the state unit of the party is deeply fractured. This is unlikely to be addressed easily or quickly.
In MP, with the exit of Scindia, it seems that Kamal Nath will be given full charge and that may make things easier for the party in terms of factionalism if Digvijay Singh chooses not to get interested in state politics. However, whether Kamal Nath can reconcile the aspirations of the OBC sections of Madhya Pradesh will be a critical factor.
In Chhattisgarh, Baghel has been beleaguered by the demands of his rival, TS Singh Deo. In other words, the euphoria over Karnataka apart, the task is cut out for the Congress president: to decide on the protocols to settle internal factional disputes and broker peace among competing leaders.
It is here that the role of Rahul Gandhi will be equally crucial. While the existence of strong leaders is always an asset, their aspirations to power often become a stumbling block in converting that asset into an actual pathway to electoral victory.
The Congress has historically suffered from this problem almost everywhere and with the weakening of national leadership, it has failed to reconcile its state-level factions. Ambitious leaders like Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra, and Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP leaving the party and forming state-level parties or allying with the BJP represents a recurrent phenomenon. Rahul Gandhi, even after his new-found charm emanating from the Bharat Jodo Yatra has not yet acquired the respect of factional leaders and the skill to broker peace among them.
Strategies and Campaign Technologies
But the central task for the party in all three (or four, if you take Telangana into account) states is to create an effective message and an efficient machine. In the case of Karnataka, that proved to be a critical factor in yielding the results desired by the party. One of the pitiable dilemmas of modern democracy is that while politics brings people to the centre-stage, politics also push them aside in favour of the technologies of the campaign.
These campaign technologies include the idea of strategists who design ways to ‘market’ the party as a brand. This is not just a matter of language or semantics but a genuine overhaul of the way in which politics is conducted.
The Congress is no exception to this new approach and in Karnataka, it did rely extensively on a group of strategists led by Sunil Kanugolu — or so it is reported.
It is true that these experts remained mostly true to the ideas and traditions that the Congress has always stood for and the identity that the the party has wished to acquire.
But this requires a strong initial vision held by the party, a brief clearly given to the ‘experts’, and a conviction about what is the bottom line for the party. Because notwithstanding the expertise brought in by the strategists, like Prashant Kishore, most strategists do not necessarily have any convictions themselves which determine who they will sell their services to. Like Prashant Kishore, Sunil Kanugolu too is reported to have worked for various parties, including the BJP for the crucial 2017 UP election.
The Buck Stops at Two Places
Thus, the onus finally rests with the Congress as to what it wants to stand for, in the process of regaining lost ground. In Karnataka, all went well in part because the incumbent government was not popular. In the coming round, in two states, the Congress is the incumbent and therefore the natural advantage of being in opposition is not available to it. Both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have transformed almost as much as Gujarat in terms of the social exclusion of Muslims. But all three states also have a strong presence of SC and ST communities.
The challenge, therefore, for the Congress is to tap into the anxieties of marginalized communities but also to include the relatively smaller section of Muslims (who account for a mere 6-7 percent in MP and under ten percent in Rajasthan). For any strategist in the contemporary Indian social milieu, it is a great temptation to advise a party to forget some sections because they might not matter electorally. It is equally easy to form a brand identity in a way to replicate the existing brand in the market. How the top leadership of the Congress responds to this temptation will decide what kind of a battle it wants to enter into.
So, the buck stops at two places: the top leadership and the state leadership. In Karnataka, given their backgrounds and previous politics, both Siddharamaiah and Shiv Kumar were keen to project the party as an inclusive party without hurting the Hindu sentiments.
In today’s polarized times, this is a herculean task: one can cater to Hindu sentiments mostly only by demonising the minority. In MP, for instance, the current BJP government has ensured a complete demonization and isolation of Muslims. In such a vitiated atmosphere, how will Kamal Nath balance his Hindu identity and the challenge of being inclusive in the real sense? This same challenge will be faced by Gehlot and other Rajasthan leaders because Rajasthan has seen a considerable corrosion of its social fabric in the recent past.
That is where merely depending on the campaign technologists may not suffice. How the Congress handles this challenge will decide not just how it fares in the assembly elections but also how it presents a political counter against the BJP.
(Suhas Palshikar, based in Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of the journal, Studies in Indian Politics. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)