Why Congress failed to win in the Hindi heartland - Hindustan Times
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Why Congress failed to win in the Hindi heartland

Dec 04, 2023 10:15 PM IST

Poor strategy derived from misreading its electoral losses and successes limited the party’s chances in a direct fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party

The election results on Sunday came as a rude shock to the Congress. It won Telangana for the first time since the UPA government created the state in 2014, but was outperformed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. The party expected to easily retain Chhattisgarh given its overwhelming mandate in 2018, but the BJP regained the state with the largest seat share and vote tally since the creation of the state. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP retained power despite having been in office for more than 18 of the last 20 years with its highest-ever vote share. And, in Rajasthan, the Congress’s hope of chief minister Ashok Gehlot magically defying the weight of electoral history — no incumbent has returned to power in the state in the last three decades — was not realised. In Mizoram, where the counting took place on Monday, the Congress has been relegated to the fourth spot in terms of seats won.

BJP and Congress celebrate respective victories in assembly elections.(ANI/PTI) PREMIUM
BJP and Congress celebrate respective victories in assembly elections.(ANI/PTI)

The election results on Sunday came as a rude shock to the Congress. It won Telangana for the first time since the UPA government created the state in 2014, but was outperformed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. The party expected to easily retain Chhattisgarh given its overwhelming mandate in 2018, but the BJP regained the state with the largest seat share and vote tally since the creation of the state. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP retained power despite having been in office for more than 18 of the last 20 years with its highest-ever vote share. And, in Rajasthan, the Congress’s hope of chief minister Ashok Gehlot magically defying the weight of electoral history — no incumbent has returned to power in the state in the last three decades — was not realised. In Mizoram, where the counting took place on Monday, the Congress has been relegated to the fourth spot in terms of seats won.

Why did the Congress fail to repeat its 2018 performance in the three Hindi belt states? And, what do these results portend for the party in the run-up to 2024?

The Congress has a perennial problem of misinterpreting election verdicts. It overplays the reasons behind its victories and underplays the losses. Take, for example, its defeat in Gujarat and victory in Karnataka in the recent elections. The Congress won Karnataka because: One, the BJP government in the state was seen in a negative light and facing charges of massive corruption; two, the Congress organisational machinery in the state could match the BJP; three, its state leadership was more popular than the BJP CM; and four, the party had a wider social and geographical base in the state. A combination of these factors gave the Congress a huge advantage in Karnataka. However, a section of Congress managers insisted that the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) along with the party’s five guarantees did all the trick to rally the bottom half of the social pyramid (AHINDA coalition) behind the party and that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and the BJP’s ideological platform had no appeal in the state.

The Congress managers have since then started posturing that they could replicate the Karnataka model at the national level. It is easier said than done. The Karnataka model could work in Telangana because the opponents made a series of mistakes that the party could capitalise on easily. The incumbent CM, K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), had exhausted the emotive appeal of a separate Telangana state in the 2014 and 2018 elections. The Congress’s young and aggressive leader Revanth Reddy confronted KCR and his political family on the charges of corruption and nepotism, including accusing the CM of betraying the Telangana movement. The re-christening of the TRS as BRS (Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi) came in as a shot in the arm for Reddy. The BJP’s campaign floundered too with multiple changes in state leadership. Furthermore, the party’s organisational base (along with efficient use of election strategists) ensured that the positive momentum from BJY and Karnataka victory created a formidable campaign.

The Congress perhaps did not realise that it faced a much tougher challenge in the Hindi belt states than it did in Karnataka or Telangana. The BJP’s organisational machinery, ideological appeal and PM Modi’s popularity are much higher here. While the BJP may have lost multiple state elections since 2018, it has also retained power in many — Uttarakhand, Goa, Haryana, Maharashtra, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and now MP. On the other hand, the Congress has not been voted back to office in any state since 2013. This indicates that the Congress organisational machine now has a poor track record of defending their government’s record. It continues to face challenges in keeping its leadership tussles in the states under wraps. And, sometimes these factional issues can become insurmountable.

The BJP under Modi is not only a more agile and adaptive party, but it also does not hesitate to take bold moves. It fielded sitting MPs and Union ministers in assembly elections. When the party realised midway through the campaign that sidelining popular CM faces could prove to be a costly move, it brought them back to the centre stage. Yet, the party may initiate a leadership change in all three states keeping an eye on the future.

Moreover, the Congress becomes a prisoner of its rhetoric too soon. Since the rise of Prime Minister Modi in 2014, the BJP has made deep inroads among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and lower castes and it mobilises the poor as well as women. Many of these groups have been traditionally voters of the Congress in these states. There were indications from the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll surveys conducted in October that the Congress’s support among these groups, in comparison to 2018, may take a hit. However, instead of taking concrete steps to address these issues, the party leadership thought it could own the social justice plank by simply making a demand for a nationwide caste census and mobilising the OBCs in north India (while giving the same number of tickets to upper castes and OBCs as the BJP). Similarly, there were reports of local anti-incumbency against Congress MLAs, but the party could not replace them.

The Congress also ignored its potential allies in the Hindi belt. An alliance with the Samajwadi Party or Aam Aadmi Party in the Hindi heartland may have not averted the party’s defeats. But by not accommodating their demands, the Congress destabilised the INDIA group even before the 2024 campaign began. The Congress needs to realise that the success of the INDIA group critically depends on its performance in states where it is in direct contest with the BJP — chiefly Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Karnataka. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, the BJP outperformed the Congress in these states. The Congress’s victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh just six months before the 2019 polls made no difference. With crushing defeat in these states now, the party’s ability to anchor an Opposition coalition has become feeble.

Hopefully, the Congress will not overread its victory in Telangana and extrapolate it to the 2024 campaign. Similarly, it may do well to refrain from creating a false binary between the voters of northern and southern India. That will be detrimental to the party’s prospects of a revival in the near future.

Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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