Is Congress making a comeback?
The middle of December has seen a robust performance by India’s Congress Party in a few key state elections. The Congress ended up winning in the states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and barely missed a majority in Madhya Pradesh in a neck-and-neck finish.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently congratulated the opposition “for their victories,” saying his party accepts “the people’s mandate with humility.” This response was indeed praiseworthy.
It, however, left behind a serious question as to whether the ruling party, BJP, needs to be worried about the evolving Indian political paradigm as India approaches its next national parliamentary elections in 2019.
Amy Kazmin of the Financial Times has made certain important observations in this regard -- “the elections in the northern states where the BJP won 61 of the combined 65 parliamentary seats in the 2014 national elections, are considered an important gauge of voter sentiment ahead of the 2019 elections.”
However, “rather than reinforcing the BJP’s political command, the polls in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh suggest a new surge in support for Congress” that was being considered as “being in steep decline.”
The BJP won 62 of the 65 seats in these three key states in the last parliamentary elections. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh are also part of a bellwether region -- gave the BJP and its allies 203 of the 225 seats that they won in 2014.
So, the Congress gained 163 assembly seats since 2013 state polls -- being regarded as a shot in the arm for the party. It will boost the morale of party workers, make it more acceptable to skeptical regional allies, and also enhance the image of its leader Rahul Gandhi.
It will also send out the significant message that Modi’s BJP is not invincible and can be defeated. All this will help Congress gain some much-needed momentum ahead of next year’s crucial general elections.
It has also raised the question not only as to whether Congress’s performance has been a shot in the arm for the party but also whether Congress, India’s Grand Old Party is finally back in the game.
The Congress party has formed governments in the three states. In Chhattisgarh, Congress won 68 of 90 seats at stake, with the BJP managing to get 15. In Rajasthan, Congress won 101 of 199 seats contested, against 73 for the incumbent BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the most important of the five states that have held Assembly elections in recent weeks, Congress emerged victorious on 114 seats while BJP managed to hold on to 108 out of 230 seats.
Regional parties won in two other smaller states -- Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi registered a thumping victory in Telangana state while in Mizoram the Mizo National Front trounced the Congress party.
The results came as a shot in the arm for Rahul Gandhi -- trying to forge a broad alliance with regional groups and present Modi with his most serious challenge yet in a general election due by May 2019.
The BJP has, however, said that the state results would not affect its prospects in the general elections. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, has remarked to ANI news agency that BJP leadership and cadres would “pause and analyze the results and then take corrective steps” that may be required before the polls.
It has already been reported that Modi is likely to announce loan waivers worth billions of US dollars to woo millions of angry farmers ahead of the general elections next year.
However, Professor Apoorvanand from Delhi University, a specialist on human rights and politics, has observed that: “The election results will have a psychological impact on the voters” during the upcoming elections.
Analysts also believe that the verdict is indicative that people are now slightly reluctant in agreeing with the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) ideology. In this context, political analyst Sajjan Singh has mentioned: “In the past five years, a vast section of people across caste, region, and religion realized that they have got nothing. There are no jobs and development.”
The Modi government’s decision to ban high denomination currency notes and controversial implementation of a federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) last year has also been seen by some as “a suicidal move,” which has brought “unimagined difficulties upon the cash-based rural and informal sector economy which sustains a large part of Indian society.”
Nevertheless, BJP workers are taking solace from the fact that the party still put up a spirited fight in two of the three states, despite the formidable odds of anti-incumbency.
Another observation underlines that one of the BJP’s greatest strengths is having capable leaders in several states, many of whom have completed more than one term. Hobbled by dynastic politics, Congress, on the other hand, appears to have failed to groom young local leaders, and have depended mainly on the charisma of the Gandhi family.
One thing is, however, abundantly clear -- the 2019 general elections will be a referendum on Modi. In 2014, Modi swept to power in what was an overwhelming verdict for change. Some of his critics believe that he has frittered away some of that support.
They are interpreting this from statements being made by some in the BJP leadership, where their rhetoric has moved from the politics of hope to the politics of grievance, mostly blaming Congress for the country’s ills.
Nonetheless, some analysts have observed that the BJP’s stridently majoritarian politics has fanned hate in certain quarters and left the country divided. Some of India’s important institutions like the federal investigation agency CBI and the central bank have also been roiled by controversies, prompting many to believe that their independence has been eroded. In fact, a day before the results were due, the Central Bank governor, Urjit Patel, unexpectedly resigned.
One needs to conclude, however, with the view that the failure to offer an alternative narrative of hope to the people will make it difficult for the Congress and its often fractious allies to mount a credible challenge to Modi.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]