Opinion: Will Congress's fortune see a turnaround in 2018?

Rahul lost; Modi won but this was not the kind of win the prime minister was expecting for his party. Photograph:( Others )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Dec 27, 2017, 07.12 AM (IST) Rajesh Singh

If today’s electoral outcomes were not to impact tomorrow’s, they would be dealt with as standalone and transient phenomena. But because the results have a roll-over effect in varying measure, they get analysed threadbare — and with some hair-splitting added. Both the winner and loser has lessons to learn, and the one who imbibes them better stands the greater chance to stand high on the podium in the coming days. And so, the verdict on the political contests of 2017 can be a determinant for 2018 as well. 

 

Two crucial elections happened in 2017, and while the end result was the same, the messages the electorate delivered were very different and the level of endorsement varied. That one of these confrontations took place early in the year and the other later as 2017 came near to a close, helped in establishing a ‘beginning and end’ narrative. Except that every start is a new beginning and every end is the harbinger of a new beginning. It’s this belief that keeps political parties going, losing steam one moment, gaining it the next. Of course, the one which recoups its losses the earliest stand the better chance of breasting the tape. 

 

The BJP began 2017 with a bang and the Congress with a whimper. 

 

The former swept the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election with a margin that even its staunchest admirers had not reckoned with. The Congress, which had tagged along with the Samajwadi Party, came to a cropper. There can be endless debate on whether the Congress sunk the Samajwadi Party or the reverse happened. 

 

With 80 Lok Sabha and 400 plus Assembly seats, Uttar Pradesh has often been the bellwether State. Parties that perform poorly here cannot hope to rule the country. Having won 71 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 on its own, the BJP had the difficult task to live up to the high level. The general sense during the Assembly poll campaigning had been that the party would return to power after nearly two decades in exile, but nobody saw the massive margin of victory coming. The wave flattened the Samajwadi Party, decimated the Bahujan Samaj Party and obliterated the Congress. 

 

The messages were the following: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma was intact (he was the star campaigner for the BJP); the split in the Samajwadi Party as the result of a family feud had taken its toll on the party; the politics of appeasement does not work; talk of good governance still sells; caste considerations, while still relevant and on which both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP heavily rely on, now have limited appeal; and, the party which manages its macro as well as micro election strategies more smartly, using both manpower and technology, has the greater chance of victory. 

 

The outcome of the Uttar Pradesh election threw up a dilemma for the Congress: Should it continue with the tactic of over-relying on strong local leaders or fire up its own local leadership to lead the battle?

 

By the time the Gujarat Assembly election came only months after the Uttar Pradesh poll, the Congress was still unsure on this front. For the first time in two decades, it sensed a chance to oust the BJP in the State, and yet there was also a feeling of diffidence. This led to its over-dependence on three young caste warriors whose affiliation to the Congress was tentative and their desire to align with that party was motivated by the prospect of little more than an immediate gain. 

 

It cannot be denied that they - Mevani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore- impacted the final tally to an extent, reducing the BJP’s number as compared to the 2012 figure and bettering the Congress’s. But that impact was less than expected, since the BJP did succeed in containing the damage caused by the migration of a section of the Patidar community to the Congress camp. It did appear that, as in the case of Uttar Pradesh, the Congress had placed all its eggs in the basket of local leaders from outside the party.

 

It needs to be remembered that the BJP had been as weakened in Uttar Pradesh over the two decades preceding 2014 as the Congress had been. But while the BJP continued to work on its core strengths and weaknesses in the State, the Congress flirted with both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in a desperate bid to regain influence. 

 

In Gujarat too, instead of focusing on the discontent in rural parts, the disruptive nature of Goods and Services Tax implementation, and the general sense of anti-incumbency of two decades, the Congress outsourced its fate to caste leaders with little political experience. In the end, it was reduced to claiming “moral victory”, which means nothing in electoral politics.

 

The message for the BJP was that it could no longer take the voters for granted, even in Gujarat. Its tally fell by 16 seats as compared to 2012, although its vote-share went up. The party must recall the “India Shining’ moment of 2004 and understand that support can dissipate almost as quickly as it comes. Recent political history is replete with such instances: 1977, when Indira Gandhi led the Congress to a debacle and also lost in her constituency; 1980, when the Janata Party collapsed and Indira Gandhi made a grand comeback; 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi led his party to a defeat, frittering away a three-fourth mandate. 

 

Fresh battle lines will be drawn for 2018, which is a year of many important elections. If both the Congress and the BJP have absorbed the experiences of the year to soon end, we can expect fireworks that will light up the nation’s democratic landscape. The Congress will seek to protect its turf in Karnataka and Meghalaya, while the BJP can expect a fight in the States its rules — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. 

 

The rural-urban voting pattern will be tested in good measure, given that Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have a far larger number of rural constituencies than Gujarat has; the BJP did resoundingly well in urban Gujarat and relatively less well in the rural belt. Although each of these States has a different set of issues on which the voters will decide, common factors will be at play too. 

 

The first is the central leadership of the Congress and the BJP. As Congress president, Rahul Gandhi will now be even more than before pitted against his rival party’s principal campaigner, Modi. The second is the local leadership of the two parties. Interestingly, while both have strong leaders, there are turf issues as well among these leaders. The State-level leadership tussle, thus, could be a decisive factor. 

 

The BJP had ruled Karnataka before, and so had the Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. If the BJP manages to win over Karnataka and retain the States it governs, the Congress’s prospects for 2019 would be bleak. Indeed, even a status quo would be fine for the BJP, though the loss in Karnataka can set back its plans for a south India foray. 

 

For the Congress, less than the best scenario would be to retain Karnataka and snatch at least one state from the BJP. That would be more than a ‘moral win’. The best case situation would, of course, be a complete victory in the north and the south. It’s important that the party’s new president creates his team well before these contests. Finally, there are de-railers in both the Congress and the BJP. They must be reined in.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).