Congress marks its 133rd foundation day on Thursday. It has to be said that the last three years have probably been the toughest since the formation of the party on December 28, 1885.
While the Gujarat result has been a shot in the arm, it is still too early to claim that the Congress has turned the corner. The grand old party, though, has been much more confident of doing so, ever since it took the sting out of BJP’s war cry of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (Congress Free India) in its former’s den in Gujarat.
The ruling party was given a mighty scare, which even shook the markets before it managed to eke out a slender lead.
Three BJP antagonists – PAAS chief Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit face Jignesh Mevani – and the general discontent around GST, demonetisation helped the Congress win 77 seats, its highest total in almost a quarter of a century. The BJP, meanwhile, was limited to 99 seats.
ON A LOSING WICKET
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah have been on a mission to wipe out the Congress. Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when the then Sonia Gandhi-led party was reduced to just 44 seats, the BJP has been trying to completely shunt the party.
The Congress is currently in power only in Puducherry, Punjab and poll-bound Karnataka, Meghalaya, Mizoram. Together, these states account for just 45 of the 543 elective seats in the Lok Sabha. The tally will further dip if the party loses any of the three poll-bound states next year or is not able to make a mark in Nagaland, Tripura or BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
On the other hand, the BJP has emerged as the dominant pole of Indian politics with 14 Chief Ministers and governments in 19 of the 29 states, including five with allies in J&K, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim and Nagaland.
PUNJAB BREAKS THE CYCLE
The first glimmer of a fightback came early in 2017 when the Congress won Punjab. The success, however, was not attributed to the party, rather the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh. The victory too was not over the BJP but the Akali Dal, which was heading the coalition with the former playing a junior party.
If reports are to be believed, two factors came into play here. One, conscious that the coalition was on its way out, the BJP sought to scuttle the chances of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and quietly threw its lot with Singh, choosing him to be the better of two evils as a successor. Two, before he was named the CM candidate by his party, Singh had reportedly threatened a split and even broached a tie-up with the BJP provided the latter broke ranks with the Akali Dal.
Gujarat, however, is a different story.
No one gave Congress a chance, given that the party has not been in power for 22 years in the state. Slowly, and steadily, the party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi climbed its way up to become serious contenders. They built a coterie with the aggressive OBC, Patidar and Dalit leaders in a re-tweaked version of Madhavsinh Solanki’s famous KHAM (Khastriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) alliance, which fetched the party 149 seats in 1985 – a tally that even Modi with his charisma has not been able to match.
Learning from past mistakes, Rahul deliberately steered clear of raising controversial issues like the 2002 riots and tried to change the perception that Congress was anti-Hindu. He visited over two dozen temples in during his campaign and prevented the BJP from communalising the elections.
He even promptly suspended senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for dubbing the Prime Minister “neech” (low-life), but the damage had already been done. Modi played on the insult to Gujarat’s “asmita” (pride) while flagging Kapil Sibal’s role as a lawyer in the Ram Temple issue and even alleged that the elections were discussed at a dinner hosted by Aiyar for Pakistan delegates, which was attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh among others.
The BJP did manage to get the mandate for its sixth term but the numbers were short of what anybody would have bet on and were far short of the exit polls. The Congress exceeded analysts’ expectation but did fall short of Rahul Gandhi’s “zabardast” (incredible) result.
Questions remain about Congress’ ability to stop and reverse the BJP’s onward march, as the Gujarat performance came essentially thanks to the young trio who helped tap the pain of agrarian distress, demonetisation and GST. Patel’s recent statement claiming credit for the Congress’s improved seat share is as much an expression of the ground reality as it is an insurance of his own saleability and longevity in politics.
LITMUS TESTS FOR CONGRESS POST-GUJARAT
The Congress has to pass three litmus tests before it can claim that Gujarat was no flash in the pan.
One, it has to dislodge the BJP from its enclaves. The saffron party has been ruling in states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since 2003. Elections will be held in both states late-2018. Rajasthan will also poll around the same time, but unlike the other two states, power in Jaipur has alternated between the BJP and the Congress since 1993.
The winds of change in the arid state cropped up recently when the Congress won all four zila parishad seats, 16 of the 27 panchayat samitis and six nagar palika seats in the elections held on December 17.
Two, it has to showcase the ability to retain seats that it is ruling. The first of that test will be when Karnataka goes to poll in the first half of 2018.
For inspiration, the party can look towards Odisha or West Bengal. Both Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress have been zealously protecting their turf against challengers. Down south, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti is in complete control of Telangana. While the Telugu Desam may be part of the NDA but Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is no pushover.
The third test lies in finding out if the Congress can rebuild its social, organisational base and win on its own without seeking props. This seems like a tall order for the party that is struggling to stay afloat after being hit by the Modi tsunami. Unless Rahul Gandhi rebuilds the organisation and crafts a solid support base for it, the party cannot emerge as a serious challenger to the BJP the way the saffron party has been for the 132-year-old political outfit.
Unlike its arch rivals, the Congress lacks ground-level worker support and a proper booth-level management system to convert into votes the support that Rahul had garnered during his rallies in Gujarat. Ground-level workers had abandoned the party, particularly in states where it has been out of power for several decades – UP, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In many of these states, the Congress machinery has rusted or crumbled and requires a long stretch of sustained nurturing before it can invite attention or pose a challenge to its rivals.
Furthermore, the Congress lacks a solid social base of its own. The party’s traditional supporters among the upper castes, Dalits and minorities have long deserted it in favour of forces that articulated its interests like the SP, BSP and the RJD. It needs to rebuild itself from square one to recover part of the vast ground it has lost to rivals and marauders.
There are enough examples to underscore the significance of this. The BJP, for instance, was thrashed in Bihar in 2015 because two strong region-based parties, the JD(U) and RJD came together in a Grand Alliance, of which the Congress was only a small part, and formed a formidable social coalition. The highly successful experiment, though, fell apart when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar abandoned his partners and renewed the ties with BJP.
(The author is a veteran journalist. Views expressed are personal)