Congress's Make or Break Election

Defeat in sport can be dispiriting and contagious. In the 1980s, most teams lost to the great West Indian side even before they reached the pitch out of sheer fright. India’s World Cup 1983 winning captain Kapil Dev says that the first time he felt India could win the tournament was when they defeated the Windies in a preliminary game: “Until then, we just didn’t believe we were good enough to beat them at a major one day tournament.”

What is true of cricket is also perhaps the case with the intensely competitive world of politics too: defeat almost becomes addictive, sapping away at self-belief and hope. In the past four years, the BJP has been a bit like the intimidating West Indian side, only this time it isn’t a quartet of fast bowlers as much as a duo of ruthless practitioners of electoral realpolitik in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah who have almost bullied their rivals into a defeatist mindset. In the last four years, the Congress has lost every single direct battle with the BJP, creating an atmosphere of gloom and doom in the main opposition party ranks, almost as if defeat is inevitable.

Which is why what happens on December 11th has suddenly become so important. Which also might explain the nervousness in the Congress when most opinion polls suggest that the party might be ahead in atleast two of the five states but the gap between the two principal national parties has narrowed across the crucial Hindi heartland. Till a month ago, the Congress had taken Rajasthan for granted: after all, twenty five years of rotating governments every five years would suggest that history is with the opposition. It is almost as if the inexorable law of anti-incumbency, almost by default, would propel the Congress into power in the state. And yet, such has been the massive last minute carpet bombing of the state by the BJP that it has left many observers wondering if there will be a sudden switch in fortunes.

In Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh too, the widespread belief that these have been close fights has unnerved the Congress. After all, the BJP is seen as the better organized party on the ground with cadre commitment ensuring better last mile booth connectivity. In any battle that is going down to the wire you expect the BJP to win because that is how it has been in recent times. Even in Telangana, where the BJP perhaps has the least stakes, the lurking fear for the Congress is the possibility of the lotus cutting into the opposition vote, thereby benefitting the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), reason enough perhaps for the Congress president Rahul Gandhi to decry the TRS as the BJP’s ‘B’ team. In Mizoram too, there could be a repeat of a pattern of the BJP aligning with regional forces in the north-east to achieve a ‘Congress-Mukt’ North-East.

And yet, the fact is, these winter elections are perhaps the first time since the debacle of 2014 where the Congress goes into counting day with a sense of genuine optimism. The fact that its leaders have fought unitedly in Madhya Pradesh has shown that faction management is possible in a party notorious for committing hara-kiri. By contrast, the fact that the party has been split down the middle over chief ministership in Rajasthan, and yet still appears to be within striking distance of winning the state, offers a counter-point to the argument that only a mini-presidential style battle where chief ministers are announced in advance works now. In Chattisgarh and Telangana too, the Congress is in the hunt despite facing formidable regional satraps in Dr Raman Singh and K Chandrashekhar Rao.

So has the Congress really transformed itself into a fighting election machine once again? Not quite. Truth is, the Congress is still far too umbilically tied to its high command culture to allow genuine autonomy to its state leaderships: note how it prevaricated for months before finally sending Kamal Nath as MP Congress president only seven months ahead of elections, or how the maha-kutumi in Telangana was sealed just weeks ahead of the polls. Even if the party’s communication outreach and booth management skills have improved, they are still playing catch up with the BJP, a political force which has taken micro-level election management to new levels. And while Rahul Gandhi may have become an energetic campaigner, he still lacks the emotional connect that appears to come so naturally to prime minister Modi. Moreover, in almost all the battleground states, the Congress has to live with the reality of being a party with plenty of leaders but not enough boots on the ground.

If the Congress still has a decent chance of staying in the game it is primarily because the BJP too is now over-dependent on the Modi factor. When elections get localized, as they appear to have across the states, then the magic of the charismatic supremo starts to fade and the politics gets entangled in a slew of local contestations where the performance (or lack of it) of legislators matter more than any promises made in Delhi. So far, the prime minister’s mass appeal has enabled the BJP to punch above its weight even in parts of the country where it was almost non-existent (Tripura this year being a classic example). But fatigue and arrogance can be a deadly mix, one which leaves the BJP in an increasingly vulnerable position in states where the party’s local leadership does not offer wholesome governance. That Mr Modi has campaigned less vigorously than he did in a Gujarat or Karnataka is not without significance: the prime minister it seems cannot risk his entire political capital in an uncertain state election when his own re-election is just months away.

Which is why December 2018 offers the Congress its best (and possibly last) chance to build some momentum heading into the 2019 general elections. If the Congress is unable to win atleast two states, it stares at the real prospect of being a deflated army heading into the national polls and losing its political relevance. If it wins a couple of states, then it may well be seen as a magnet for a broader anti-BJP coalition. It is, in a sense, the Congress’s Kapil Dev moment of 1983, one which will decide whether the mood of defeatism is enduring, or whether the party lives to fight another day.

Post-script: On the campaign trail in Rajasthan, a young Congress leader rather presciently remarked, “My biggest fear is that if we have a good day in the office on December 11, our party will get so carried away that it will think that its already won 2019 which will be a very different election!” Truth is, when the patient is in ICU and facing lingering death, then the slightest sign of improvement is latched upon as evidence of a miraculous recovery.

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