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Stakes bigger for Cong than BJP in state polls

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.
Published : Oct 11, 2018, 12:44 am IST
Updated : Oct 11, 2018, 12:44 am IST

A possible defeat of the BJP in a few states may worry party leaders, but it will not signal a defeat for it in 2019.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi (Photo: PTI)
 Congress president Rahul Gandhi (Photo: PTI)

The stakes for the Congress Party are much bigger than for the BJP when five states go to the polls in the months of November and December this year. The challenge for the Congress would be to not only retain power in Mizoram, but also to win elections in at least a couple of the states of the three now ruled by the BJP. The challenge for the BJP would be to retain at least a couple, if not all three states - namely Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — where it is now in power. A victory of the Congress in a couple of states could help in changing the overall mood of voters towards the Congress, which is extremely important for it to put up a decent fight in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The stakes are slightly lower for the BJP as defeat in a couple of states may not adversely affect the mood of most voters in other states. Those defeats might put the BJP on the backfoot, but it does not guarantee the victory of the non-BJP alliance, in whatever shape that evolves. It is also important for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to retain power in Telangana as evidence of regional parties still being strong. The victory for the Congress and TRS is important as their success might help in coalition-formation, the only way to challenge the BJP in 2019. But the question remains — can the Congress win this “semi-final” and be seen as a serious challenger to the BJP for the 2019 “final”? This is a task that is much easier said than done. Things will not be smooth for the Congress. It is true that the BJP is facing 15 years of anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and of five years in Rajasthan, but one must not forget that in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh the Congress needs a massive swing in its favour to defeat the BJP. In Rajasthan, the Congress needs an eight per cent swing in its favour to defeat the BJP, as the gap in the voteshare of the two parties is about 12 per cent. Similarly, in MP, the Congress needs around a 5-6 per cent swing in its favour to defeat the BJP. Sections of voters may be unhappy with the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, but there doesn’t seem to be any strong anti-incumbency sentiment against chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, so it won’t be easy for a divided Congress to engineer a five per cent swing in its favour. The task has become considerably more difficult after its failure to form an alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.

In Rajasthan, there are visible signs of anti-incumbency against the Vasundhara Raje Scindia government, but the Congress needs a bigger swing in its favour to defeat the BJP. The task may not be impossible, but it’s not easy earlier. A possible alliance with the BSP in Rajasthan would have brightened the prospects of the Congress in Rajasthan, but its failure to form an alliance leaves some doubt if the Congress alone can defeat the BJP in Rajasthan, which signals anti-incumbency. One should not underestimate the ability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of tilting the tide in the BJP’s favour with his aggressive campaign. He ably tilted the tide in the BJP’s favour in Gujarat and Karnataka recently. The Congress should anticipate similar aggressive campaigns by Mr Modi in most of these states, more so in Rajasthan. Being the last state to go to vote, Mr Modi could spend more time in Rajasthan than the other states.

The Congress should have been in a position to win the polls in Chhattisgarh, as it lost the last three Assembly polls (2013, 2008 and 2003) by a very narrow margin of one to two per cent votes. With 15 years of anti-incumbency, it should have been easy for the Congress to defeat the BJP, but that possibility seems to have dimmed. The formation of the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) by Ajit Jogi, the face of the Congress in Chhattisgarh for decades, might damage the party’s prospects. What has made the situation even worse is the JCC’s alliance with the BSP, which would further damage the Congress’ prospects. In this small state where polls are decided by narrow margins, the emergence of a third alternative may well lead to a hung Assembly.

While the Congress is trying to form an alliance with TDP, Telangana will see a direct contest between the Congress and the TRS, as the BJP and TDP have a nominal presence with seven and 14 per cent votes during the 2014 Assembly elections. Given the mood of voters in the state, it seems the TRS would register an easy victory in Telangana while the Congress will emerge as the main Opposition party. It may be interesting to see if the BJP manages to make further inroads or remains a fringe player in the state’s politics.

It is important for the Congress to retain power in Mizoram, the only state in the Northeast where it has been in power for the past decade. In a small state, elections are decided by a narrow margin. The Congress had a thin majority both in 2008 and 2012 by just four and two seats. It is important for the Congress not to take the contest lightly and not to let the state slip away from it.

A possible defeat of the BJP in a few states may worry party leaders, but it will not signal a defeat for it in 2019. But the Congress’ inability to snatch any state from the BJP may well seal its fate in 2019. It will demoralise party leaders and workers, and its image as a viable alternative to the BJP in 2019 will get a further dent. Even those who are unhappy with the BJP now and may be thinking of switching their vote to the Congress may go back to the BJP in case there is no viable alternative. A victory for the Congress is a must to give it oxygen — not only for prolonging its life, but also to ensure a healthier life.

Tags: 2019 lok sabha election, congress