For four years and a bit, every time there has been a major state election, the dominant narrative is to call it a ‘test’ for prime minister Narendra Modi and his Sancho Panza, Amit Shah. The truth is, barring defeats in Bihar and Delhi in 2015, and a ‘stolen’ mandate in Goa in 2017, the BJP leadership has successfully passed almost every election test ( in Punjab, it was the BJP ally, the Akali Dal, who was the big loser). The time, therefore, has now come to reverse the storyline: the 2018 winter elections are, above all else, a stern examination of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress president’s credentials to lead an anti-Modi front in 2019. In the past 12 months, Mr Gandhi has got away by claiming to have scored a ‘moral victory’ in Gujarat by bringing the BJP down to double digits and then scraped through with a post-poll jugaad in Karnataka. Now, he and the Congress party are faced with a prospect of a battle in five states where there can be no more excuses for failure, no protective shield in case of another defeat.
The once mighty Congress is in power, after all, in just two and three quarter states today: Punjab, Mizoram and a power share in Karnataka (have added a quarter point for Puducherry). This isn’t just about ‘momentum’ before the big general elections of 2019. Remember, the BJP won in Rajasthan, MP and Chattisgarh in the winter of 2003 and yet lost the 2004 general elections. You need momentum at times in sports to succeed; in politics, you need it to stay relevant. The next round of elections is a challenge for the Congress to avoid being pushed into irrelevance, where victory in at least three of the five states is critical to lift morale and re-emerge as a potential magnet for change.
Four months ago, in the afterglow of its post-poll alliance in Karnataka, the Congress seemed poised to craft a ‘maha-gatbandhan’ or Grand Alliance against the BJP. That alliance is now coming apart because of a mix of regional contradictions and national aspirations. K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR) was the first to distance himself in Telangana where the Congress remains his principal adversary. Mamata Banerjee views the Bengal Congress as a burden which she will not carry. Sharad Pawar has limited options but, as always, would like to weigh them carefully. A restive Nitish Kumar seems to have made his peace for now with the BJP as has the ultimate political weather-cock Ram Vilas Paswan. Even smaller groupings like Prakash Ambedkar’s BBM and Asauddin Owaisi’s AIMIM have struck ‘private’ arrangements in Maharashtra.
The decision of Mayawati not to align with the Congress in the state elections is, unarguably, the biggest blow to opposition unity. She was, after all, a star attraction at the ‘maha-gatbandhan’ muhurat in Bengaluru in June with Sonia Gandhi making it a point to push her into the arc-lights. Mrs Gandhi probably realizes that Mayawati has a ‘national’ appeal that goes well beyond the fact that the Bahujan Samaj party has zero seats in the Lok Sabha. Not only is Behenji a key player in UP, where her potentially game-changing alliance with the Samajwadi party still seems on track, she has a single digit, but significant vote in atleast half a dozen other states, including MP and Chattisgarh. In a bipolar fight in these states between the BJP and the Congress, she could have added a crucial incremental vote to the latter, apart from raising the possibility of a pan-India Dalit consolidation around the opposition.
But for Mayawati, the ‘key’ to power – her mentor Kanshi Ram called it the ‘master key’ or ‘guru killi’ -- has always revolved around staying unpredictable and making short term calculations. Which is why it is no surprise that she has aborted any long term engagement with the Congress. Whether her choices are occasioned by the pressure of the numerous cases she and her family members face, or a conscious strategy to keep her options open till the Lok Sabha elections, the fact is, Mayawati has sent out a firm message: the Congress today isn’t a bankable deposit that can guarantee fixed returns.
It is precisely that perception of being a party in terminal decline that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress need to erase in the next two months to offer a realistic nationwide challenge to the Modi-led BJP in 2019. In each of the three BJP-ruled states of MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, there is ample evidence, anecdotal and psephological, of a creeping local anti-incumbency to varying degrees. In Telangana too, KCR’s decision to go in for a snap poll smacks of a measure of anxiety as much as it does of catching his opponents off-guard. In Mizoram, the Congress remains the principal ‘national’ player despite the BJP pushing for a strategic alliance of regional forces. In other words, the Congress for once actually has half a chance in each of the five state contestations.
And yet, the overwhelming impression is that the Congress could end up squandering the opportunity because of a frayed election machine that appears like a rickety second-hand car when compared with the resourceful BJP Formula One model. The BJP does have the hefty advantage of being financially well endowed but money power is not always a decisive factor. The Congress must look within too and search for answers to the hard questions. Will a deeply factionalised MP unit work as a unified force? Will a Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot be able to rise above a fierce tussle for possible chief ministership in Rajasthan? Will a dormant Telangana unit suddenly get energized at election time? Will the lack of leadership options in Chattisgarh with their former chief minister Ajit Jogi playing spoiler limit the party’s potential? And even in Mizoram, will the inability to contain rebellion within its ranks cost it dearly?
Most crucially, there is the ultimate kaun banega crorepati question: can Rahul Gandhi deliver a major state to the party as its chief campaigner? In recent months, the Congress leader has shown some spunk in taking the fight into the Modi camp with his combative tone. The rhetoric may have got him the headlines but it hasn’t yet got him something that every politician ultimately needs to prove their mettle: voter endorsement. In that sense, November-December 2018 could be make or break for the Congress leadership.
Post-script: At a recent media conclave in Kolkata, a Congress spokesperson insisted that the ‘maha-gatbandhan’ was a ‘media creation’ and the party was only pushing for state-wise alliances. The Trinamool Congress leader on the panel retorted, “In Bengal, we don’t need any allies.” The BJP representative on the same debate just smiled. As turf battles intensify, who will have the last laugh?