Gujarat elections will be first big test for Rahul Gandhi as Congress president | assembly-elections$Gujarat-2017 | Hindustan Times
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Gujarat elections will be first big test for Rahul Gandhi as Congress president

Given the fact that Gujarat is a straight contest between the Congress and BJP, the former would have to achieve a vote swing of at least 10-11 percentage points in order to defeat the BJP.

assembly elections Updated: Dec 07, 2017 07:51 IST
Roshan Kishore
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi waves to a crowd during an election campaign meeting at Anjar in Kutch district.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi waves to a crowd during an election campaign meeting at Anjar in Kutch district.(PTI Photo)

After serving as its vice-president for more than five years, Rahul Gandhi is finally going to take over as the president of the Congress party. The symbolism involved in the party’s decision to elevate him in the middle of Gujarat assembly election campaign is difficult to miss.

The BJP won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It had a huge lead of 26.6 percentage points over the Congress in terms of vote share.

Given the fact that Gujarat is a straight contest between the Congress and BJP, the former would have to achieve a vote swing of at least 10-11 percentage points in order to defeat the BJP. Can Rahul Gandhi manage this difficult feat in his first big test as the Congress president?

CAN CONGRESS WIN?

Three rounds of pre-poll tracker surveys conducted by the Delhibased Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti suggest that the Congress has done really well to bridge its gap vis-à-vis the BJP.

The gap between the share of respondents who wanted to vote for the BJP and the Congress was 30 percentage points in the August tracker survey.

The two parties are almost tied in the survey held in end of November .

To be sure, pre-poll surveys are not always accurate; CSDS itself was horribly off the mark with its predictions for the UP assembly polls which the BJP swept. That and the huge gap between the vote shares of the Congress and the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the state raise doubts on predictions of such a large turnaround this time.

Which raises a larger question: How stable is the vote share of the leading political party (by vote share) in a given state between a Lok Sabha election and the subsequent assembly poll?

In the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, the BJP saw a decline of 14.1 percentage points compared to its 2014 Lok Sabha vote share. The Aam Aadmi Party swept these elections.

In the 2016 West Bengal assembly elections, the Trinamool Congress gained 6.3 percentage points compared to its vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. What about the larger trend though?

Hindustan Times looked at these figures in India’s 19 major states to answer this question. All union territories (UTs) except Delhi, north-eastern states (except Assam), and Goa have been excluded from the analysis.

Odisha and Andhra Pradesh do not figure as they have simultaneous elections to the assembly and Lok Sabha.

The last Lok Sabha election we included in this analysis is 2004, when Rahul Gandhi first contested the Lok Sabha elections and entered active politics. For the selected states and time period, we get 50 data points.

In 39 of them, the party with the highest vote share in Lok Sabha elections suffered a decline in its vote share in the subsequent assembly election.

In 11 instances, the decline in vote share of the party with highest vote share in the previous Lok Sabha election was more than 10 percentage points.

An analysis of the vote swing (see chart 1) shows that the possibility of Congress defeating the BJP in Gujarat is not in the realm of impossible.

RAHUL’S LARGER CHALLENGE

The 2017 Gujarat election is only the first among many challenges which Gandhi will have to handle as the Congress president.

The party suffered a shock defeat in the 2014 elections after two consecutive stints in power. The 2004 and 2009 victories have sort of hidden the larger political challenges facing the Congress.

An analysis of state-wise vote shares since 1991 shows that the Congress’s national footprint has been declining consistently.

This can be seen from a decline in percentage of states and UTs with higher vote shares of the Congress.

The 2009 parliamentary election results seem to be a break in this more or less consistent trend.

The vote share figures (see chart 2) of the Congress seem to be in keeping with the running criticism of party’s failure to nurture and retain strong regional leaders.

It is this weakness of the Congress which has helped the BJP replace it as the dominant national party.

Even when the BJP lost the 2004 and 2009 elections, there was no significant increase in the number of states where it fell behind the Congress in terms of the vote share. (see chart 3)

This means that the BJP is more capable when it comes to guarding its support base against the Congress.

It is this ability which has allowed the present BJP leadership to embark on its mission of creating a CongressMukt Bharat.

A lot of commentators will rush to judge Rahul Gandhi’s leadership abilities on the basis of the Gujarat election results, good or bad.

His ultimate success or failure however would depend on whether or not he can arrest the consistent erosion in his party’s support across the length and breadth of India.