The Congress has finally been able to stem the electoral slide that had set in with the drubbings in three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2013.
Five years on, its performance in these three states has not only given the much-needed boost to the Congress in its revival efforts ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but also strengthened Rahul Gandhi’s hold on the party organisation.
The decimation in the 2014 elections and the successive defeats in states had demoralised the Congress cadre and the 133-year-old party no longer had a pan-India presence.
Due to its shrinking political presence in states, the Congress had lost its bargaining power with different regional parties which now dictated terms, often leading to breakdowns in alliance agreements.
Tuesday’s outcome changes the Congress’ calculus in these three fundamental ways.
The Congress had got used to losing. Its workers were demoralised. The BJP looked invincible. The party did not know if it could wrest power back. It came close in Gujarat but did not appear to be anywhere close to converting the contests into potential victories. This could change. The Congress can reliably and confidently head into elections with the sense that the worst is behind it. It will not go through a phase of only winning 44 seats in the Lok Sabha polls. There will be an upswing. Power in these states will also help the party generate resources.
Two, Rahul Gandhi has now emerged as the principal leader of the anti-Modi opposition. He has led the party to triumph, by placing faith in local state leaders and picking up issues that hurt the BJP the most. Whether he can match Narendra Modi’s popularity is not certain. But the fact that he is now a credible alternative is established. Gandhi can no longer be caricatured as an ineffectual leader.
And finally, on alliances, just examine what happened in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) demanded 50 and 15 seats respectively. But the Congress was willing to concede 15-20 of the 230 seats in Madhya Pradesh and five of the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh. The BSP then joined hands with Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh in the tribal-dominated state and went alone in Madhya Pradesh.
However, the tables might turn now. The impact of these elections will be seen in the alliance talks that the Congress is expected to have with its potential allies in different states, especially in the politically and electorally important Uttar Pradesh. The Congress will now try to drive a hard bargain with the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) in terms of seat-sharing for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh. The two parties had stayed away from Monday’s meeting of the opposition parties.
In Bihar, too, the Congress is unlikely to succumb to the pressure tactics from its potential allies.
At the same time, the task of bringing all the opposition parties together rests completely with the Congress, which had to adopt a “give and take” formula to ensure that the anti-BJP front takes shape ahead of the 2019 elections.
But amidst the cheer, there is dark signal for the party in the east and the south. With its defeat in Mizoram, the Congress has lost its last citadel in the northeast where the regional parties and the BJP have been the major gainers.
In Telangana, the Congress fought hard, but not well enough, to oust the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) from power. The Congress could take solace from the fact that it was nowhere in the game three months ago but bounced back to at least be in the reckoning. However, K Chandrasekhar Rao, or KCR, will be an important player to watch post the 2019 Lok Sabha elections; he may be a potential post-poll ally for the BJP.