Special Report

Congress can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Congress can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

written by Bhavdeep Kang FPJ :The Congress’ stakes in the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are much higher than the BJP’s. It is in these three states that the grand old party, head-to-head with its national rival, will prove its strength (or lack thereof) to the electorate, potential allies and its own party workers.

The BJP may well regard the assembly elections as a skirmish before the big battle in 2019, but for the Congress, it’s a matter of life-or-death. More so, because conditions could not be more conducive for the party than they are now. To muff it up would be a humiliation very hard to overcome.

The BJP faces double anti-incumbency, in addition to the double whammy of demonetisation and GST. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it also carries the burden of voter fatigue, having been in power for three terms. To make matters worse for the BJP, Rajasthan and MP saw unprecedented mobilisation by farmers in 2017. As a result, the usual angst over unemployment, agrarian distress, comparatively high oil prices and bad governance has been magnified.

That said, the Congress is famously capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A weak party organisation and a tendency among state satraps to undermine each other has often proved expensive.Conscious of the costs of endemic infighting, Congress MP and Madhya Pradesh election-in-charge Kamal Nath has tried to carry his principle rivals, Digivijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, with him. He may not have been the best choice of ‘face’ for the Congress, because he is a baniya in an OBC-dominated state, but he is a wily and pragmatic politician. The do-or-die feeling has permeated the party’s state unit and the state leaders appear to have buried the hatchet for now.

In Rajasthan, the in-fighting in the Congress is fortunately offset by exaggerated anti-incumbency, which had manifested as early as 2015. Unlike MP, here public anger is directed more against CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia than the centre, so much so that the Congress took the risk of fielding a turncoat, Manvendra Singh, against her. In Chhattisgarh, infighting in the Congress took its toll long before the elections, when former CM Ajit Jogi floated his own outfit. Judging from exit interviews, Jogi didn’t have much traction, which ought to be good news for the Congress.

The most interesting aspect of the campaign – apart from the revelation of the Congress president’s gotra and the party’s new-found love for the cow and other Hindu symbols – is Rahul Gandhi’s direct attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In MP, he was quite kind to incumbent CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan and other BJP leaders like Sushma Swaraj, but came out all guns blazing against Modi. His ‘chowkidar chor hai’ slogan is aimed at undermining Modi’s scam-free credentials by alleging kickbacks in the Rafale defense deal. (The resonance with the Bofors scam that took down his late father in 1989 must be rather satisfying.)

In earlier campaigns, Rahul has tried not to confront Modi directly and in fact, sacked motor-mouth Mani Shankar Aiyer, albeit temporarily, for describing the PM as ‘neech’ during the Gujarat assembly elections. That he is now comfortable with a presidential-style face-off with Modi speaks volumes for his growing confidence. The regional parties, on the other hand, may have strong reservations about a one-on-one between Rahul and Modi in Lok Sabha 2019.

The expected Modi blitzkrieg in the three states did not materialise. The PM confined himself to just 20 or so public meetings, leaving the heavy lifting to the chief ministers and the RSS. For the latter, central India represents a tough challenge. The sangh parivar’s footprint here is strong, but its own frontal organisations and workers have been severely critical of economic policies that have impacted farmers and traders. It has had to conduct a house-to-house campaign to allay the fears of even hard-core supporters. If Chauhan, with the RSS backing him, somehow manages a fourth term in the face of such overwhelming odds, he becomes a Modi-in-the-making.

Both the national parties are aware that assembly election results are rarely reflected in the Lok Sabha. The last round of elections were exceptional, in that the BJP won all three states in 2013 and then went on to win a Lok Sabha majority in 2014. In previous elections, there has been a disconnect between assembly and Lok Sabha results. In 1998, the Congress won Rajasthan and MP, but lost Parliament in 1999. In 2003, the BJP won both states, but lost Parliament. The 2008 result was mixed – the BJP won MP while the Congress won both Rajasthan and Parliament.

In recent battles between the two parties, the BJP has emerged victorious. In Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Karnataka, it left the Congress far behind in terms of seatshare. In Tripura, it effectively replaced the Congress. This is the Congress’ golden opportunity to strike back. As Scindia said, ‘it’s now or never’.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with  35  years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.


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