How Congress led by Rahul Gandhi turned the party around in 3 states
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, those are the same factors the BJP has got right since it embarked on its winning spree since 2014.Updated: Dec 12, 2018 12:44 IST
Never write the obituary of a party. Or a leader. And never write the obituary of a party which is 133 years old, and a leader who belongs to a family which has produced three prime ministers.
Never also underestimate the ability of the Indian electorate to throw up surprises.
The Congress is back, winning the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. And it is back in the region where it was most deeply vulnerable. If there is a pattern in this set of elections, here are five factors Congress got right.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, those are the same factors the BJP has got right since it embarked on its winning spree since 2014.
The first is leadership. This was always Narendra Modi’s forte. What changed?
Rahul Gandhi got it right — not because he won the election on his own steam but because a leader has to take the right decisions. He took the right decisions in Madhya Pradesh. The state president was the old, but the resourceful, Kamal Nath who knew how to rev up an organisation. Jyotiraditya Scindia was the most popular of all leaders across regions and demographics. Digvijay Singh knew the state organisation inside out but was kept in the background because of his perceived public unpopularity. In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot was most popular. Sachin Pilot worked hard, and rebuilt the organisation. In Chhattisgarh, TS Singh Deo, as the Thakur leader and leader of opposition, and Tamardhwaj Sahu and Bhupesh Bagel, as the key swingers of the crucial Other Backward Classes vote, were empowered. Gandhi picked no chief ministerial candidate, although he will have to do so now (but everyone worked hard believing that they had a chance). But in a loose organisational setup, to manage leadership, and reconcile factions, is testament to Gandhi’s underestimated management skills. Once he had figured leadership, he led from the front with an aggressive and energetic campaign.
The second is religion. In Indian elections, you have to get religion right. The BJP has always relied on polarisation, portraying itself as the Hindu and the Congress as the pro-Muslim party.
The Congress, soon after the 2014 elections but definitely after the Uttar Pradesh elections, realised that it had to change its game. And this led to Rahul Gandhi picking up straight from his grandmother’s textbook of displaying Hindu religiosity rather than from his great grandfather’s practice of aggressive agnosticism. Many criticised this as the Congress’ turn to soft Hindutva. But Gandhi stayed on the path, convinced that he needed to be in tune with the beliefs , but not necessarily the prejudices, of his society. The polarisation trick did not work.
The third is the economic narrative. The BJP constructed the vikas (development) promise as an overarching platform. It is unravelling.
Watch: Assembly Polls: Key takeaways for Rahul Gandhi from verdict 2018
The Congress picked up local issues in each district and constituency. It helped that the party was the challenger and thus had the advantage of taking on an incumbent. But as Gandhi said in each state, there were two pillars of the party’s strategy, a promise to protect farmers, reeling from low prices, and a promise to provide jobs to the young. Agrarian distress and unemployment have become the two biggest failures of the government. The Congress capitalised on the resentment, and promised both short term measures such as loan waivers and longer term measures of promising ways to encourage small and medium industries everywhere to create jobs. These are not easy promises to keep, but for now they have worked. It also built on the anger that has been accumulating over both demonetisation and implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.
No Indian election can be won without getting caste right, and this is the fourth factor. The BJP has, since 2014, become an inclusive Hindu party. It has consolidated upper castes, and gone beyond them to win over the support of OBCs, Dalits and tribals.
The Congress recognised it had to be as all-embracing. It went back to the upper castes and leveraged on their latent sense that the BJP has betrayed them by turning pro backward and Dalit. It went to the Dalits and constantly emphasised the BJP’s upper caste character. It picked on local issues, from the encounter of a Rajput gangster in Rajasthan to putting up its own upper caste candidates in several constituencies. It also sought to win back the OBC vote by giving them representation in leadership in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. All of this helped the Congress create a far more inclusive and umbrella coalition within the Hindu fold than it has at any point since 2014.
The fifth is organisation, which matters. And the BJP has got this right with the extensive use of its booth committee and panna pramukhs and cadre based machine.
The Congress knew it cannot replicate the BJP and RSS machine. But it needed boots on the ground. Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan did this over the past four years. Kamal Nath did this in Madhya Pradesh over the past eight months, building on an already strong base. And the collective leadership of Chhattisgarh did this over two years, especially after the exit of Ajit Jogi. They were ably assisted by the Congress’ data analytics team and the Shakti programme, which gave to the Congress, for the first time, an in-depth sense of its own organisational base by connecting its workers to the leadership.
Elections are both simple and complex. Their outcomes cannot be attributed to a single factor. But if you get leadership, caste, religion, economics and organisation right, you have a better chance of winning. The BJP taught the Congress that over the past four years. The Congress has learnt well and turned the tables, to return to the heartland and make the 2019 election an entirely open game.
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