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Above: Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi with farmers from Tamil Nadu during a protest demonstration seeking loan waivers in New Delhi in March this year/Photo: UNI

The assembly elections have shown a resurgent Congress. It now needs to get ready for the Lok Sabha polls and stitch a grand alliance which will keep the BJP out. That’s easier said than done

By Kalyani Shankar

Is Brand Modi losing its sheen? Going by the results of the just concluded assembly polls in five states, the Modi “magic” appears to be waning. On the other hand, the electoral fortunes of the Congress have improved dramatically with a massive mandate in three of the five states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—in the Hindi heartland, the bastion of the BJP.

The euphoria surrounding these elections can be gauged from The New York Times reportage: “It appears that Mr Modi, who seemed so invincible not long ago, may be vulnerable as his brand loses its lustre. At the same time, the leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress, once considered comatose, has suddenly woken up.”

The BJP suffered a big jolt as its winning streak was halted just ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This isn’t just a wake-up call for the saffron party, but a rude awakening to the ground realities. The poor show in the Gujarat polls in December 2017 was the first warning, while that in Karnataka in May 2018 was the second. The recent results are the third and most crucial and the BJP will suffer if it ignores the warnings any longer.

Why did the BJP lose its bastions? The first factor was severe anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh where the chief ministers were bidding for power for the fourth time.

In Rajasthan, there was an anti-Vasundhara Raje wave. The state, anyway, follows a traditional pattern of voting out the existing government.

These polls show that the BJP had lost the confidence of the urban middle classes, farmers, SCs/STs and women. The party did not read the signals emanating from the agrarian crisis (the biggest reason for its defeat in MP). There was also dissatisfaction in both urban and rural constituencies due to demonetisation and the introduction of GST. Small traders, the core voters of the BJP, were also disenchanted. The BJP lost 57 of the 170 seats in the three states and the Congress gained from the discontent in the lower castes over the dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, aimed to protect SCs and STs from harassment.

 

Mizoram went to regional party MNF and is the only state where the Congress reduced its vote share from nearly 45 percent in 2013 to just about 30 percent, while that of the BJP rose five-fold from 0.4 percent to 8 percent. The Congress lost due to anti-incumbency there.

In Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) won with a stunning majority. Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao’s gamble of advancing the polls worked in his favour. The people of Telangana, fearing Andhra domination once again by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), rejected the Maha Kootami consisting of the Congress, TDP, CPI and the Telangana Jana Samithi. The BJP was a minor player there. The combined vote share of the Kootami decreased from 40.46 percent to 32.69 percent, while the TRS vote share increased from 34.04 percent to 46.86 percent.

The results show that the BJP is nowhere near achieving its declared aim of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. On the contrary, it got a bloody nose in the three Hindi heartland states, whereas the Congress is back in the game. The BJP should be content that the North­east at least is a Congress-free region.

After hearing the results, a young Congress worker exultantly cried: “Pappu pass ho gaya (Pappu has passed).” The winner in these polls was indeed Rahul Gandhi. It took him more than five years since he became the party vice-president, a year since he became party chief and seven assembly polls to prove that he is a credible leader in his own right.

Gandhi’s hard work, adoption of soft Hindutva strategy, temple-hopping, right mix of social engineering and good ticket distribution seem to have worked for the party.

There are several takeaways from the results. The voters have rejected the BJP. Gandhi said the assembly election results were a “clear message” to the Modi government that the people were not happy with the party and the time had come for change. He asserted that his party would also win in 2019. Even Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who is the BJP’s ally, commented: “The voters have rejected the unwanted (BJP), congratulations to them.”

The obvious fallout of these polls will be on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The three states together account for about 65 seats and going by the present vote share, the Congress could gain 30 seats, while the BJP could lose 33 seats. The BJP lost 176 assembly seats that it had won in 2013, and the Congress gained 158 across Rajasthan, MP and Chhattis­garh, according to an India Spend analysis of electoral data.

The win could not have come at a better time for the Congress as it was demoralised on losing election after election in the past four-and-a-half years. Gandhi will emerge a key challenger to Prime Minister Modi in 2019 and will position the Congress as a credible alternative to the BJP. The Grand Old Party is back in the reckoning.

The win will also give much-needed resources for the 2019 polls as the party is starved of funds now. It will enhance its negotiating capacity with other parties. Above all, this should unite the Opposition and a realignment of political forces is likely ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

This win will also enable Gandhi to anchor the Grand Alliance if it is formed before the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress should not become overconfident and arrogant.

It should realise that the 2019 polls cannot be won without a larger coalition with regional parties. It has to reach out to them and be flexible in seat-sharing if it wants the BJP to be voted out of power. The party has rightly decided to concentrate on state-specific alliances rather then of national-level ones. The Opposition should also draw up a Common Minimum Programme before the 2019 polls.

These elections have shown the Congress not only gaining three states, but also improving its vote share in these states. The BJP’s vote share has shrunk considerably as compared to the 2013 elections. In Madhya Pradesh, it won 41 percent against 44.88 in 2013. In Chhattisgarh, it came down to 33 percent from 41 percent and in Rajasthan from 38.8 percent to 45.2 percent. This should be a matter of concern for BJP strategists.

On the other hand, the Congress vote share has gone up to 40.9 percent from 38.3 in Madhya Pradesh, 39.80 percent from 33.1 in Rajasthan and 43 percent from 40 percent in Chhattisgarh.

Looking ahead, the fight will be mainly between the UPA and the NDA. The Congress has to keep the UPA intact and add more allies, if necessary. It has already tied up state-specific alliances in many states such as Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Bihar. The party is in the process of firming up alliances with the SP and the BSP in UP. If it works out, the BJP will find the fight tough in UP from where it got 71 seats in 2014.

The Grand Alliance, even if it materialises, will look at a prime ministerial candidate only in a post-poll scenario.

The Congress has to get its act together for the 2019 polls. There is no point in just Modi-bashing as it has to reveal what it will offer to the electorate.

While the economy and jobs will be major issues, others include corruption, non-delivery of Modi’s poll promises, demonetisation, GST, the Rafale deal, cow vigilantism, the Ram Mandir, rising petrol prices, the agrarian crisis and the widening division of castes.

The BJP has a tough job on its hands and may be unable to match its results in 2014—73 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, 26 out of 26 in Gujarat, 7 out of 7 in Delhi, 5 out of 5 in Uttarakhand, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh and 4 out of 4 in Himachal Pradesh. It is likely to lose many seats in 2019 and these have to be compensated for in the Northeast and the south, where the party is weak.

A coalition with allies could be one way of getting more seats. The BJP has lost 18 allies since 2014. They include the TDP, MDMK, PMK, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, Janasena Party, DMDK, Haryana Janhit Congress, NPF and the Gorkha Janmukthi Morcha. Now that the tide has turned against the BJP, it will make the party a less attractive ally as compared to 2014.

With hardly three months left for the Lok Sabha polls, time is of the essence. Both sides should get ready to face 900 million voters, including 100 million first-time ones. The strategists in both camps have to work overtime in reaching their goal.

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