The Congress’s revival after having hit the lowest point in its history in 2014 is the big takeaway from the assembly election results. By the same token, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hope of ushering in a Congress-mukt (free) India has been dashed, along with its dream of reigning from panchayats to parliament for the next 50 years.
At the same time, there is no denying that the BJP put up a good fight in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by demonstrating that even 15 years of the party’s rule haven’t made the anti-incumbency factor strong enough to give the Congress an easy victory as the latter expected.
Only in Chhattisgarh has the BJP faltered with the Congress’s virtual runaway success, which is all the more creditable because the party’s entire top leadership was wiped out by a Maoist attack in 2013, leaving the relatively unknown Bhupesh Baghel in charge.
The Congress also managed to fend off the challenge of the so-called spoilers – the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress, which were expected to cut into the Congress’s vote share and help the BJP.
However, as the outcome shows, if the electorate makes up its mind to defeat the ruling party, then it turns resolutely to the only credible challenger to the exclusion of the others. The Congress can consider itself lucky that the mercurial Mayawati preempted the chance of a tie-up with the Congress and chose the Janata Congress.
In Madhya Pradesh, too, Mayawati’s decision to go it alone doesn’t seem to have hurt the Congress to any significant extent. The same holds true for Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, who also chose to go it alone in Madhya Pradesh.
By faring satisfactorily in the three heartland states, the Congress has edged ahead of the other non-BJP parties in the matter of providing leadership to the proposed mahagathbandhan (grand alliance).
Of the others, the poor performance of the Telugu Desam in Telangana may have undermined its leader, Chandrababu Naidu’s chances of leading the alliance.
As the lead taken by Rahul Gandhi in addressing the media persons after the recent conclave of the opposition leaders in New Delhi showed, the Congress president is emerging as the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Opposition leaders.
It goes without saying that the Congress’s good showing in the three states is Rahul Gandhi’s big moment. He led the party from the front by effectively replying to Narendra Modi’s barbs with the video which the Congress president tweeted about the prime minister’s incessant harping on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty being perhaps the most telling riposte.
There is little doubt that the outcome has shown that the constant carping on the Congress’s dynasticism by the prime minister is not helping the BJP as much as it would like.
Nor has the building of the world’s tallest statue or the promise to construct the Ram temple accompanied by side swipes at the Supreme Court’s refusal to be hustled into the case on the temple when it had met at midnight to decide the terrorist Yakub Memon’s mercy petition, as a BJP leader said.
Although it is often said that assembly election results are not always reflected in a parliamentary poll, the Congress is bound to approach next year’s general election in a far more optimistic frame of mind than if the party had not fared well.
On the other hand, the BJP cannot but be less confident if only because it is bound to suspect that the Modi magic is no longer working.
One reason why it is failing is probably that the prime minister’s naamdar-kaamdar speeches are becoming a trifle repetitive. With the government unable to find any answers to joblessness and agricultural distress, it is not easy for the BJP to enthuse the voters.
True, the Congress also doesn’t have any solutions except the standard recipe of loan waivers while its economic plans remain hazy. It also has no answers to the BJPs charge of the mahagathbandhan being a khichdi (a hodge-podge combination), which cannot deliver anything worthwhile.
But elections are all about giving an alternative group a chance after having tested the incumbents. For the BJP, it is not only a stagnant economy which is the problem, the disarray in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Reserve Bank are also a disadvantage where the perception of the middle class is concerned.
Whether the Congress will be able to politically utilize these drawbacks of its main opponent is the million-dollar question. The party cannot but be aware that its post-independence days of glory are long past and that it does not exist as a major force in large parts of the country such as U.P., Bihar, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. It is also losing ground in the north-east, as its setback in its last stronghold of Mizoram shows.
Clearly, both the Congress and the BJP are hobbled by a number of factors which cannot be immediately rectified. From this standpoint, they will now be confronting each other on a level playing field. (IPA)