The 3-0 victory margin heralds the emergence of candidate Rahul

Narendra Modi remains the tallest national leader, but the results of the recent assembly elections show that Rahul Gandhi has done enough to at least be the face of the grouping that will take him on in 2019
The Congress will be happy about the results of the recently held assembly elections, although it will be left with the feeling that it could have done better(AFP)
The Congress will be happy about the results of the recently held assembly elections, although it will be left with the feeling that it could have done better(AFP)
Updated on Dec 12, 2018 07:56 AM IST
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For Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the December 11 results of five state elections mark the biggest victory of his political career. Apart from the outcome itself, the party’s performance increases the chances of an alliance coming together to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections even as it strengthens the Congress’ claim to lead this grouping.

The BJP was in power and in serious contention in three states of the five that went to the polls and lost all of them. The Congress was in serious contention, on its own or in an alliance, in all, and won three, including the key Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

The win needs to be seen in the context of the fortunes of the Congress as well as the BJP over the past five years.

The BJP ruled 18 states (on its own or through alliances) till these elections and has a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Over the past five years, it has emerged the most powerful political force India has ever seen. It has also perfected the art of the campaign across several dimensions: caste; choice of candidates; use of social media; and public relations. To snatch power from such a party, in not one, but three states, is something that would make even experienced political campaigners very proud.

The Indian National Congress was reduced to being in power in three states before the Karnataka elections in April and to a minority of 44 in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

For the BJP, there are two clear messages in the result: one good; the other, bad.

Local factors were largely responsible for its loss in the three Hindi-heartland states, but underlying the strong anti-incumbency in these states is a mélange of issues that is common across several states: the agrarian crisis which has left farmers feeling helpless and angry; demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax that have hurt the informal economy and small businesses; and unemployment. Caste and religion do not seem to have played as important a role in the elections as these have. In the case of some of these issues, the BJP’s response has been delayed or inadequate. In the case of others, the party has simply relied on aggressively pushing an alternative narrative. Worryingly for the BJP, all of these are issues that will find resonance in the Lok Sabha elections.

If the BJP didn’t do as badly as it was expected to in Rajasthan, and almost managed to hold on to Madhya Pradesh, at least some of the credit should go to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most potent weapon in the party’s campaign arsenal. He campaigned relentlessly in both states, and the party’s performance indicates that he remains the most popular political leader in the country. The BJP will be hoping that this popularity will win it even more votes in a Lok Sabha election in which national issues should ideally matter more (and national leaders have more appeal) than they do during state elections. The party will clearly emphasise national issues more in the run-up to 2019, perhaps even try to create some, even as it tries harder to make the parliamentary election a mano-a-mano contest between Modi and Gandhi.

As both parties prepare for 2019, Gandhi, and the Congress, would do well to remember what worked for them, especially in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

In both states, the party has powerful local leaders who represent a combination of age and experience. In Rajasthan it has Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Sure, Gandhi will now have to choose chief ministers for the two states from among them, but the results have highlighted the value of having strong regional leaders driving the campaign.

The Congress backed this up with the use of data analytics, a smartphone enabled booth-level network of workers (both were hitherto used only by the BJP), and a reasonably scientific way of picking candidates, although the process wasn’t entirely glitch-free, especially in Rajasthan, where the party may have lost as many as 10 seats to rebels.

The BJP, which, over the past five years, has become used to not losing, will be disappointed with the results that came out on December 11, although it will take them because it knows that things could have been much worse.

The Congress will be happy about the results, although it will be left with the feeling that it could have done better.

At 48, nearing the end of his first year as the party’s president, Gandhi seems to have finally come of age as a political leader — not enough to take on Modi, perhaps, but definitely enough to become the face of a grouping that does.

sukumar.ranganathan@hindustantimes.com

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Saturday, November 27, 2021