How Congress scripted a revival from the lows of 2014 and 2019 | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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How Congress scripted a revival from the lows of 2014 and 2019

By, New Delhi
Jun 05, 2024 08:47 AM IST

The performance of the Congress and the INDIA bloc meant that the BJP was restricted to 240seats, short of the majority, although the larger NDA grouping which it heads won 294 seats

Forty-four seats and 19.3% of the vote in 2014; 52 seats and 19.49%of the vote in 2019; and 99 seats and 21.26%of the vote in 2024. One of the stories of these elections has been the turnaround of the Indian National Congress, one made all the more remarkable by its improved overall strike rate (defined as seats won to seats contested expressed in percentage) of 30%compared to 8.3in 2019 and 9.4%in 2014, and improved strike rate of 29%in head-to-head contests against the BJP, compared to 8%in 2019 and 12.2% in 2014.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge and Sonia Gandhi at a press conference at the party HQ in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)
Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge and Sonia Gandhi at a press conference at the party HQ in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Raj K Raj/ HT Photo)

The performance of the Congress and the INDIA bloc meant that the BJP was restricted to 240seats, short of the majority, although the larger NDA grouping which it heads won 294 seats.

“The election result that has come today is the result of the people. This is the victory of the people and democracy. We humbly accept the public opinion in the elections of the 18th Lok Sabha. This time the public has not given a clear majority to any one party (especially the ruling party),” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Tuesday.

He also targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“BJP has sought votes on one person and one face, but now it is clear that the mandate has gone against Narendra Modi. This is a huge defeat for them morally and politically. They have suffered a huge loss from a moral point of view.”

The Congress’s turnaround was built on three pillars.

The first was alliances

The INDIA bloc of opposition parties got off to a rocky start with many partners going public in late 2022 and early 2023 about the Congress delaying seat sharing talks. But eventually, the Congress-led bloc of 30parties did manage to do this to a significant extent. The bloc fielded candidates across 543 seats, with the most serious of the intragroup contests in 75 seats across West Bengal, Kerala, and Punjab. And in around 350 seats, the alliance managed to field a single candidate against the BJP.

Much of that came from the Congress’s willingness to let go. It fielded only 328 candidates this time, the lowest it ever has. Interestingly, the party was willing to go even lower.

In an internal meeting of Congress leaders on January 6 at the party headquarters, Kharge hinted that the Congress would fight fewer seats: “We should focus on 255 seats,” he said to a surprised audience.

“We respected INDIA partners. We accommodated their wishes and fought together,” Rahul Gandhi said at a press conference on Tuesday.

But the Congress was also careful about picking its candidates. “During the discussions with Samajwadi Party, they repeatedly advised us not to field Imran Masood from Saharanpur as he had lost in previous polls. But we stuck with Masood and now he is winning the seat with more than 77,000 votes,” said a leader who asked not to be named.

And where it felt a seat adjustment would hurt the alliance, it avoided one, like it did in Punjab, although it entered a pact with the Aam Aadmi Party, which rules that state in two others and in Delhi. “If a ruling party and the principal Opposition party joined hands, our votes would have gone to the BJP and Akali Dal,” said a senior Congress leader from Punjab. Of the 13 seats in Punjab, the Congress won seven and the AAP three.

Similarly, it avoided a pact with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

In Kerala, it did not partner with the Left. It may have won only one seat in West Bengal, but the UDF alliance headed by it won 18 in Kerala (one less than last time), indicating that the approach worked for the party.

“We had to revive our organisation. And now we hope to reclaim the principal Opposition’s role,” said a second Congress leader. In 2014 and 2019, with less than 10% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress was not eligible to have its house leader designated leader of the opposition. That will change now.

The second was the campaign itself

The Congress focused sharply on the caste census, unemployment and price rise, emphasising the 25 guarantees in its manifesto and aggressively rebutting the BJP’s attempts to claim that Congress would redistribute wealth or hand over resources to Muslims, if it came to power.

An A4-size card with 25 concrete guarantees scribbled on it was perhaps the most important piece of document for the Congress in Lok Sabha 2024 campaign. It contained five guarantees each for women, young people, farmers, workers, and for social justice.These included major sops — 1 lakh for women heads of every poor family, 10kg of free food grain, and the right to apprenticeship.

“We gave a new vision to India. We gave a pro-poor vision for India. The country has clearly said that we do not want Narendra Modi and Amit Shah running the affairs of this country,” Gandhi said on Tuesday.

“We realised that our focus has to be the aam admi. The rural and urban poor and the middle class. And we curated our manifesto in that way,” said a third Congress leader who asked not to be named.

The issue of caste-based reservation was a key issue. The Congress and the other INDIA bloc parties alleged that the BJP wanted to win over 400 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats so that it could change the Constitution and do away with caste-based quotas for the SC and ST communities. While this wasn’t factual, the BJP struggled to counter it. And Gandhi also pitched for a caste census, promising proportionate benefits, and also said it would raise the 50% ceiling on reservation for SC, ST, OBCs.

Clad in a white polo T-shirt and trousers, his uniform during the Bharat Jodo Yatras, Rahul Gandhi carried a special pocket-edition of the Constitution, waving it around at almost every meeting.

“For the first time in recent history, the Constitution became a key plank in the Lok Sabha election. And it possibly had its effect especially in the poor belts,” said economist Abhirup Sarkar.

“Why do they need 400 seats?” asked a number of Congress candidates as well as INDIA bloc leaders during the campaign. They offered the answer too: to change the Constitution drafted by BR Ambedkar to do away with reservation.

The third was the party organisation

Between 2019 and 2024 elections, Rahul Gandhi travelled more than 10,000km, mostly on foot in his two yatras, reaching out to people and seeking to revive the Congress organisation at the grassroots level. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, opted for campaigning across India, and especially in Uttar Pradesh, instead of fighting in Amethi.

The Congress organisation under Kharge emerged united. More importantly, it was responsive and flexible enough to react to the BJP, often using social media to good effect, an area where the party had lagged in 2014 and 2019.

For instance, sitting in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, on May 8, Rahul Gandhi recorded a short video to debunk Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that the Congress was sent a “tempo-load” of money by Adani and Ambani. “You spoke about tempo. Are you talking from your personal experience?” Gandhi asked Modi.

Congress leaders close to Gandhi said the party was sharp and quick in its rebuttal to what they termed “Modi’s lies”.

So, when the BJP alleged that the Congress wanted to redistribute wealth, the party machinery went full throttle to argue that its entire manifesto didn’t say a word on redistribution.

To be sure, with 99seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress is still far behind the BJP, but experts said the improvement is stark.

“I think it was a major turnaround for the Congress given the adversities it has faced in the run up to the poll. It will form a bigger and better pressure group inside and outside Parliament but the Congress also has the larger responsibility to take the allies together for the upcoming elections,” said political analyst Suman Chattopadhyay.

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