To understand the test ahead there is first a need for a deep dive into the verdict from the states where the Congress wrested power.
In these troubled times it is tempting to view the Assembly election results as indication of the revival of the secular republic, the rejection of doctrinaire politics and governance, and evidence of mandate correction. However, by dwelling excessively on the change of government in the three states where the ruling BJP has been unseated by the Congress, the resurgent Grand Old Party and its supporters would lose sight of the graver challenges ahead. While the first of these is undoubtedly the Lok Sabha election, the rollback of majoritarianism is the long-term task.
To understand the test ahead there is first a need for a deep dive into the verdict from the states where the Congress wrested power. While everyone heaved a sigh of relief after the Congress’ tally rested at 114, just one short of the halfway mark, the figure which should worry the party and its backers is 47,827 — the number of votes which the BJP polled more than the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. Although the Congress eventually edged out the BJP in a humdinger of a contest, the latter led the former by a whisker in terms of its voteshare — 41 per cent for the BJP to 40.9 per cent for the Congress. It is due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system that often legislative strength does not represent popular support. After all, even the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally of 282 in 2014 was way beyond what its 31 per cent voteshare would have reflected. Or that the 37 per cent that the party got along with allies was way below their commanding presence in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress would seek solace in the fact that if the votes polled by four rebel Independents, who after becoming MLAs are back into the fold — although formal induction is still awaited — are added to its voteshare, the Congress would nose ahead of the BJP and actually become Party No. 1 in the state. Despite this, the two parties would remain at par, evidence that the Congress will face with a sterner test in the Lok Sabha elections and that this verdict has not automatically reopened the path of its electoral comeback at a national level.
In Rajasthan too, the Congress is dogged by its voteshare being discomfortingly close to the BJP’s — 39.3 per cent of the former to the latter’s 38.8 per cent. In terms of actual number of votes which separated the two, the figure was just 177,699. Party leaders, however, would argue that there is a need to factor in the votes polled by 13 Independent candidates, most of who are Congress rebels, and they would eventually either back the party from outside or make a homecoming. These Independents polled 9.5 per cent of the total votes cast, a whopping 33,72,206, and even if almost half of these were bagged by “inconsequential” candidates, it would still add up sufficiently to the Congress’ tally, providing it an element of comfort. But this “notional” lead over its rival has to be converted. This would, however, not be possible without taking steps that strike at the endemic problem within the party across states — rebels are encouraged and put up by faction leaders whenever they fail to secure nominations for their favourites. To counter this, the party high command has to deploy authority and cannot hide behind the argument of being more democratic because it should never become an excuse for indiscipline.
Paradoxically, of the three states, the Congress secured the most comfortable mandate in Chhattisgarh, a state expected to be the tightest for two reasons. First, almost its entire state leadership was wiped out in the terrorist attack in 2013, and second, the alliance between Ajit Jogi and the Bahujan Samaj Party had the potential to cut significantly into the anti-BJP vote. Yet it is here that the Congress secured a comfortable 10 per cent voteshare margin, and this is due to its weakness becoming its strength — the absence of strong faction leaders and the possibility of a split in the anti-BJP vote instilled fear that any internal division would finish whatever chances the party had.
In addition, the Congress benefited by the strong sentiment against the BJP’s approach of centralising the entire issue of left-wing extremism, which the people in the state see as the result of the refusal of successive governments, especially under the watch of Raman Singh, to tackle the roots of the unrest. While the BJP at the national level progressively increased the use of the issue of “Urban Naxals” as another stick to beat liberal-radical India with, the epicentre of this discord became boggy for the party.
The lessons for the Congress and other Opposition parties are obvious. But even if one assumes that the Index of Opposition Unity will rise significantly in the states, and the most where it is most required, it cannot be ignored that the Narendra Modi factor was utilised only in Rajasthan. It was the Prime Minister’s thrust towards the end of the campaign which had significantly reduced the Congress’ victory margin. That Mr Modi retains the ability to turn this election in his party’s favour even when issues were chiefly local provides a hint of what confronts the Congress and other Opposition parties in 2019. There is no denying that the race has opened up, but the BJP cannot in any way be written off. It still remains the party most likely to emerge at the top of the tally next year.
To deny the BJP this position, the Congress has to stop being in reactive mode and set the agenda. Instead of awaiting the BJP to implode like in Chhattisgarh, the Congress must provide an alternate vision for India. It must stop being the B-Team of the BJP and return to its inclusive past. It will be tempting for the Congress to continue pursuing “soft” Hindutva, but the real cause for cheer will be when it sheds diffidence of articulating issues concerning the well-being of those on the margins of society, including the religious minorities.