Rise of Rahul Gandhi’s Congress signals decline of Modi’s BJP
Rahul Gandhi-led Congress’ win in three state elections in the Hindi heartland has sent unmistakable signals that it is bouncing back to the centre-stage.
Consequently, many consider it marks the decline of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP before the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.
Others believe that, no matter how you look at the results of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Gandhi family namdhar has made the job of the BJP to return to power more difficult than hitherto.
It’s not so much the defeat of the BJP in these states but the sudden ascent of the Congress after a string of defeats at the hands of the saffron party in key state polls including in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, and in Kerala where the Communists came to power.
Of course, the Congress beat the Akali-BJP combine to win in Punjab, and engineered a hurried post-poll coalition to capture Karnataka. These two wins were not exactly seen as big gains for the Congress.
On the other hand, the victories in the Hindi heartland has changed the perceptions about the Congress and its president who took charge exactly year ago.
An exuberant Rahul Gandhi could not help telling the media that only few days ago he had told his mother Sonia Gandhi that the loss of power in 2014 had done immense good for him and the party, imparting several lessons.
In terms of Lok Sabha seats, the BJP’s loss in Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is put at 30. Currently, the BJP has 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats from the three states.
More importantly, the big takeaway was that the Congress managed to defeat the BJP in a one-to-one contest without the help of any regional parties. A player like Ajit Jogi who tied up with Mayawati was expected to affect the Congress but ended up marauding the BJP!
In any case, nobody had ever thought that the BJP would have a smooth sailing in these states because of acute rural distress, unemployment, voter fatigue, allegations of graft of those who were in power for three decades.
Yet the BJP did not think of replacing many sitting MLAs or dropping ministers who were unpopular in these states. Shivraj Singh Chouhan who had served MP as chief minister for 13 years did not want to drop a large number of MLAs even though internal surveys favoured such a case. Another BJP’s longest-serving chief minister, Raman Singh, did not wield the knife either.
In Rajasthan, where slogans like “Modi tujhse bair nahi, rani teri khair nahi (Modi, we don’t have a problem with you, but with Vasundhara Raje it’s a different matter),” the BJP let many ministers to seek re-election.
The worst result was in Chattisgarh, followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
The silver lining, however, was that the Congress could have had a more spectacular victory in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. But two things reduced its numbers.
An aggressive campaign by Vasundhara Raje, who had several things working against her, halted the Congress’ run just before it crossed the half-way mark in the state assembly. She was aided in this endeavour by BJP president Amit Shah who spent a long time in the state to douse internal fires lit by dissident ministers and MLAs against Raje.
In Madhya Pradesh, Chouhan showed that he could deprive the Congress a simple majority, pushing it to seek the help of unattached MLAs. A farmer himself, Chouhan weathered many a political storm including a fierce farmer agitation that claimed some lives in police firing in Mandasaur in 2017. (Ironically, the BJP won in Mandsaur). The BJP polled more votes in terms of percentage but gained fewer seats than the Congress in MP.
Nevertheless, the voter preference undoubtedly hurt PM Modi’s image.
A harsher truth was that the elections may have been won at least in Madhya Pradesh and more seats secured in Rajasthan.
What caused the setback was the state of the economy, particularly the twin issues of farmers finding their incomes stagnant and youngsters unable to find jobs.
Also, the Congress made such tall promises —sweeping loan waivers, unemployment doles and special handouts for every marginalised section of the society.
What can Modi and the BJP do now to salvage the situation?
The fact is that the Lok Sabha elections are to be held in just three to four months. There is little time to address these issues in real terms.
Nevertheless, there is a window of a chance to change the perceptions and work to turn into advantage what is now a challenge for the Congress.
The Congress has to keep the momentum in its favour going till the parliamentary elections.
Already, the mini-crisis faced by Rahul Gandhi in choosing the chief ministerial face between Sachin Pilot–Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Kamal Nath–Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP, and T S Singh Deo–Bhupesh Baghel–Charan Das Mahant in Chattisgarh is showing the extent of factionalism.
Adding to this scenario is the question as to how the Congress governments will implement farm loan waivers to within 10 days of coming to power. Such promises in Punjab and Karnataka are still to be fully implemented.
Modi is generally known to be averse to resorting to the populism of the kind that Rahul Gandhi embraces easily for the Congress to be seen as more caring party for the poor.
Modi is bound to resist pressure from the BJP rank and file to match what the Congress president is daring to do.
But Modi cannot completely ignore some short-term relief to farmers, jobless youth and small traders and businesses.
Modi would resolve to address the gaps in the agricultural policies and improve the messaging about steps to redress the rural distress.
Just talking about mere act of allocating large sums for several schemes to boost farmer incomes is not enough because it takes a longer time to percolate down.
Farmers do not get the promised hike in MSP because of the role of the middlemen remain undiminished in large states. Ambitious plans to stop post-harvest losses by creating cold storage chains need to happen faster than envisioned. The Modi government’s immediate efforts may be directed for ensuring at least a good number of farmers get reasonably better prices for their produce. Crop insurance schemes that do not seem to work on the ground have to be innovated to make sense to farmers.
Some caste groups that do not benefit from reservation are upset that nothing is done for the welfare of poor among them. They need to be reassured that the BJP is sensitive to their plight. Similarly, small and medium entrepreneurs who seem to be unhappy with the BJP over the GST should be given more incentives.
The direct battle between the BJP and the Congress is in more than 175 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP currently holds more than 150 of these seats. The Congress will need to defeat the BJP in in these seats without any help from smaller parties. The BJP must fully focus on them.
The latest poll results only show that the BJP is down but not out, feel some poll analysts.
It is politically logical if Modi asks BJP chief Amit Shah to signal the party’s willingness to be more amenable to the existing and potential allies.
There cannot be leniency towards many sitting BJP MPs who fail to make the cut —in terms of performance, popularity, commitment and connect to voters. They will have to replaced with fresher and youthful faces.
Lastly, the BJP should take the challenge posed by NOTA. A few months ago, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had drawn attention to NOTA, appealing to voters not to waste their ballot by exercising this option.
Undoutedly, Modi-led BJP needs a new narrative for the 2019 test.
By Shekhar Iyer