The Congress’s experiments

Congress president Rahul Gandhi.   | Photo Credit: PTI

On December 11 last year, Rahul Gandhi was elected as president of the Congress party. Four and a half years after the party’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Assembly election results of five States that will be known today will reveal whether the Congress is still in the game and whether Mr. Gandhi’s time at the helm has made a difference to the fortunes of the party.

These results are significant for many reasons. One, the Congress has a stake in all five States: it is the principal Opposition party in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana, and is in power in Mizoram. Two, three of these States are in the Hindi heartland and are part of the ruling BJP’s stronghold: in 2014, 62 of the 282 seats it won were from these States. Three, in the last three Assembly polls in 2003, 2008 and 2013, the party that won these three States went on to get the lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats in those States, too. And four, these results will not only reflect the popular mood in the Hindi heartland, but also in one State each in the Northeast and in south India.

The Congress’s experiments

Given the importance of these elections, then, it is surprising that the Congress has not played it safe — it has experimented both with electoral tactics and ideological strategy. In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, it chose to go it alone. It did not ally with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh or the Gondwana Ganatantra Party to keep its cadres intact, as part of a long-term strategy to rebuild its own organisation and regain lost ground. This is a gamble, because if this experiment does not succeed in at least two of these three States, the Congress will have to concede much more in prospective seat-sharing arrangements for the general elections — and not just in these three States, but also in Uttar Pradesh where it is a marginal party and where the SP, the BSP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal have already decided to contest together. These results will also influence the anti-BJP alliance in Bihar, but to a lesser extent, partly because the Rashtriya Janata Dal is more warmly disposed towards the Congress than the BSP and the SP.

In Telangana, the Congress has forged a grand alliance with its old rival in the region, the Telugu Desam Party, as well as the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi. If this combination can decrease the gap in vote share with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi substantially, if not win the election, it would strengthen the idea of a countrywide mahagathbandhan for 2019, with State-specific alliances and a national agenda for governance. A wipeout would force the party to rethink its strategy.

It is odd, however, that the Congress has paid little attention to Mizoram, which is the only State where it is in power in the Northeast. Of course, since north-eastern States tend to go with the party ruling at the Centre, the Congress, apart from warning people that voting for its principal ally, the Mizo National Front, would only help provide a back-door entry for the BJP, did little else. If the Congress succeeds in retaining the State, it will send out a message that voters in the State don’t believe that the BJP will win a second parliamentary term.

Promoting soft Hindutva

That the Congress is testing its own strength in the Hindi heartland before the Lok Sabha elections has a certain logic to it. But its conscious decision to aggressively play the soft saffron card does not. Party insiders say this is being done to “neutralise” its “pro-minority” image that the BJP has exploited to its advantage for years. However, that sits awkwardly with its stated commitment to the ideals of the freedom struggle and the pluralism promoted by former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Mr. Gandhi’s rant against the RSS is diminished somewhat with his frequent temple visits and the reported declaration of his gotra: he would have been better off presenting himself as an Indian representing the syncretic culture of the country. Even the party’s election manifesto includes a promise to promote cow urine. What does all this tell the Dalits at a time of upper-caste assertion? What signal does it give Muslims who have been facing a heightened threat to their lives and livelihoods over the last four and a half years?

Mr. Gandhi may have united the Congress and pumped energy into it. He has made the party younger too, by promoting the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. But regardless of which party emerges the victor in these elections, by resurrecting Rajiv Gandhi’s brand of competitive communalism, Mr. Gandhi has also helped nudge the political discourse a little more rightwards, from pluralism to Hindu fundamentalism. That will be an ideological victory for the BJP.

Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 11:01:31 AM |

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