Rahul Gandhi can justifiably claim credit for the Congress’s 3-0 victory over the BJP in the Hindi heartland, in the just concluded round of assembly polls. After all, if he could be blamed, derided and mocked as “Pappu’’ for all the electoral losses since the humiliating defeat of 2014, then surely he must be lauded now for the turnaround in his party’s fortunes.
How Cong Took On Regional Giants
These polls undoubtedly mark Rahul’s coming of age. Unlike Punjab in 2017, which the Congress won with Amarinder Singh, its chief ministerial face spearheading it, this time it went into battle in the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with the Gandhi scion leading the charge, and no declared CM candidate. And lo and behold, it won!
That’s no mean feat, considering it was up against two regional behemoths in Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, both still popular three-term chief ministers, and a blitzkrieg campaign by Narendra Modi in Rajasthan in the final leg of electioneering.
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So, if Rahul walked into the Congress media room with a spring in his step and a dimpled grin on his face for a post-results press conference, it would be churlish to grudge him a moment to rest on his laurels and savour the sweet taste of success. It would be churlish because, the really tough part comes now: to lead his party into battle against the Modi juggernaut in 2019 and resurrect it from near-death, to become a national force to reckon with again.
Key Takeaways for Congress & Rahul
The challenges are formidable and there are enough pointers tucked away in the finer details of the results from the three states, that Rahul will have to take note of, as he gears up for the big fight that lies ahead.
The main take-away from the results is that the Congress performed well, but fell short of expectations.
The slide in the BJP’s fortunes in stronghold states like MP and Chhattisgarh speak of the anger rippling through voters over the Modi government’s economic policies. It was a double whammy for the BJP.
Rural voters were seething because of the crisis in agriculture, low returns for their produce and crippling debts. Urban voters were restless because small businesses have slumped after demonetization and GST, resulting in large-scale unemployment in the unorganized sector.
Yet, despite the strong negative sentiment on the ground, the Congress was unable to reap the whirlwind it could have.
In the end, Chhattisgarh was the only state that gave the Congress the kind of thumping win it wanted. In Rajasthan and MP, it has struggled to reach the halfway mark, and has had to turn to Independents and smaller parties to make up the shortfall in numbers.
Factional Feuds Need a Strong Hand
Two things emerge from this and Rahul will have to address both urgently to get the Congress battle-ready.
One, the party continues to be plagued by serious organisational weaknesses and factionalism, leading to avoidable losses.
Two, because of its internal fragility, it has no option but to co-opt smaller parties and local groups into an alliance to comprehensively defeat the BJP’s lean and mean electoral machine. Otherwise, it ends up with marginal victories like the ones in MP and Rajasthan.
The fierce tussle for supremacy between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and between Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh dogged the Congress at every step
This was evident when tickets were distributed, right through the campaign, and even on polling day when it was necessary to work unitedly to mobilize voters and get them to the polling booth.
It is now evident that Gehlot’s loyalists stood as Independents and cut into Congress votes in more than a dozen constituencies in Rajasthan. A similar story played out in MP with Digvijaya Singh’s supporters.
Rahul took the cautious route and played safe by trying to placate all factions when decisive leadership was called for.
That needs to change in the weeks ahead with a now-confident Rahul asserting himself and toning up the organisation by putting down factional feuds with a firm hand.
Challenges Ahead for Cong
At the same time, the results have underlined the importance of crafting winning alliances in different states to take on the BJP. The Congress party’s diminished national footprint (it is virtually absent in big states like UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu etc) means it cannot expect to lead a front against the BJP; nor can Rahul be projected as the opposition’s PM face.
Yet, no opposition to Modi can disregard the Congress. Telengana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao’s talk of a non-BJP, non-Congress front is pure hogwash.
There are at least six states and nearly 150 seats in which the Congress even today is the main challenger to the BJP. Any front that aims to oust the Modi government has to accommodate the Congress.
The recent success has pumped up Rahul’s image, not just in his own party, but with opposition leaders as well. Now he has to play the game with consummate skill and diplomacy.
He must woo partners without being arrogant and aggressive. He has to get down to the nitty-gritty of seat sharing even if it means giving up some political space to accommodate smaller partners who can help defeat the BJP. And at no point in time can he scare away regional chieftains by insisting that the Congress lead the alliance, or project him as the PM face.
The road to revival is a long process. The first step is to bring down the BJP and create political room. The rest will follow.
(Click here for the full coverage of the recently concluded assembly elections.)
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)