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Friday, Sep 20, 2019

Alliance, air strike effects throw new challenges at Congress

The Congress seemed to have gained an edge over rivals in the election campaign a few weeks ago.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 10, 2019 20:33 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Congress president Rahul Gandhi looks on at a rally as party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra  waves to supporters in Lucknow.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi looks on at a rally as party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra waves to supporters in Lucknow.(AFP File Photo)
         

Electoral victories in three key heartland states at least year’s end brought some cheer to the Congress under Rahul Gandhi, but its mettle will be truly tested in this summer’s Lok Sabha polls when it takes on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , aspiring for a second term in power under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Congress seemed to have gained an edge over rivals in the election campaign a few weeks ago. After the February 14 Pulwama suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 paramilitary troopers, followed by Indian Air Force strikes on a terror camp in Pakistan, the party seems to have lost its early momentum and ceded ground to the BJP.

Gandhi led from the front in the assembly elections, helping the party wrest Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh from the BJP. He tore into the ruling party on a range of issues -- alleged wrongdoing in the Rafale fighter jet deal, rising unemployment, growing farm distress, and the flawed implementation of the November 2016 invalidation of high-value banknotes and the goods and services tax (GST) that took effect in July 2017.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the party is still seeking inputs for its manifesto from a cross-section of people. And it is yet to zero in on advertising and public relations firms to design its outdoor, print, electronic and social media campaigns and draft slogans that touch a chord with voters.

Gandhi has made it clear to his party leaders and workers that they should go into the Lok Sabha elections keeping the focus on people-centric matters and not let the BJP weave the political narrative around divisive or polarising issues.

The Congress president’s relentless campaign on the Rafale deal worked well despite apprehensions among his some of his party colleagues that it could backfire. Soon, the other opposition parties also made the fighter jet deal their key talking point to put the BJP on the mat.

In January, Rahul Gandhi appointed his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and senior leader Jyotiraditya Scindia as party general secretaries and gave them the charge of east and west Uttar Pradesh respectively.The move galvanised the Congress cadre as evident from the response to the interactions the two general secretaries held with party leaders and workers in Lucknow for four days from February 11.

But the Congress campaign got derailed with the suicide car bomb attack in Pulwama, following which the BJP-led central government seized the initiative by adopting a muscular approach towards terrorism inspired from across the border.In response to the Pulwama attack, the government ordered the February 26 air strike on a terrorist camp run by the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan’s Balakot.

In the aftermath of Pulwama, the Congress deliberately adopted a low profile, as a result of which its campaign visibly lost steam, while both Prime Minister Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah crisscrossed the country seeking the party’s return to power. Congress is seeking to catch up only now, with Gandhi set to address elections rallies across the country in the coming days.

The Congress is also lagging behind the BJP is in stitching up alliances. While the BJP has sealed tie-ups in many states, including xxxxmention some key ones, the Congress failed to do so in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi and is still trying to address seat-sharing issues in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Karnataka.

Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu are the only two states where the Congress has finalised seat-sharing arrangements. While it is part of the United Democratic Front in Kerala, there is no clarity on Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Jammu and Kashmir.

To be sure, the Congress did manage to beat the BJP in releasing the first list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls. Out of the 15 candidates it has named so far, 11 are from Uttar Pradesh and four from Gujarat.

“Congress is fully prepared to throw out an indifferent Modi regime with an overwhelming support from the people of the country,” said the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala.

Political analysts said there was no doubt the Congress would perform better than it did in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it sank to 46 seats in the House, its lowest tally ever following damaging corruption scandals, but its poll strategy has lacked the sharpness that is required to beat an opponent like the BJP.

“Their preparation is really really bad. They (Congress) have not been able to form alliances in UP and in Delhi and they also have some issues in Maharashtra,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

“They will definitely improve their performance in 2019 because there is not the kind of revulsion among the people now that we saw in 2014. There is also some decline of support for the BJP.”

However, he said the situation has to some extent changed post-Pulwama. “It is going negative for the Congress and positive for the BJP,” Kumar added.

In Uttar Pradesh last month, Rahul Gandhi said the Congress will play on the front foot in the elections. If it indeed does so, a keen contest is on the cards.

First Published: Mar 10, 2019 20:33 IST