The year 2014 was the worst year yet in the Congress party’s history, winning on 44 seats in a historic general election. Emerging from this defeat, the Congress had a golden opportunity to reinvent itself in 2015. It wasted this opportunity.
This is not because Narendra Modi remained as popular in 2015 as he was in 2014. One could argue over the extent of decline in his popularity, but there can’t be much doubt that there has been a decline. In both Delhi and Bihar, the Bharatiya Janata Party lost many seats where Modi himself had campaigned. Voters complained of food inflation and the long awaited promise of achhe din, the good days. His image as the man who wouldn’t stand corruption took a beating with his inaction over Lalitgate, Vyapam and DDCA scandals. Yet, the Congress was unable to capitalise over the changing sentiment over Modi, leave alone catalyse it in its favour.
The Congress doesn’t see it this way. After all, they were part of the winning Mahagatbandhan in Bihar, earning 23 seats, as compared to the 4 seats it held in the previous assembly. They won a Lok Sabha by-election in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh. Won by the BJP in 2014, and vacated by its MP’s death, the Congress wrested back its traditional seat. In the civic polls in Gujarat, it managed to rout the BJP in rural panchayats, even in Modi’s home turf of Mehsana.
All of these are indicators of the fizzling out of the 2014 Modi wave, and not in any way the sign of the Congress party’s revival.
A missed opportunity in Bihar
Travelling in the Bihar elections, I found myself one afternoon at the local Congress office in Newada, the southern constituency of the controversial union minister Giriraj Singh. The leaders there were openly trying to defeat their own candidates in one constituency, because she had jumped ship from alliance partner Janata Dal (United), depriving Congress hopefuls of a chance. They were so inept they couldn’t succeed at this sabotage; she won. The Bihar Congress chief, Ashok Choudhary, admitted that there were at least three such candidates ‘borrowed’ from Nitish Kumar’s JDU, for want of winnable candidates. JDU leaders said there were many more.
The JDU and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal were unhappy the Congress wasn’t doing much for the election campaign. It did zero campaigning in the 200 seats where JDU and RJD were contesting. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi made helicopter visits for rallies and went away. At one point during the campaign, Rahul Gandhi was doing a padyatra in Karnataka. One JDU leader joked that when there are elections in Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi will do a padyatra in Bihar.
Amit Shah ran a poor campaign for the BJP, but he camped there for three months. Even if Rahul Gandhi had spent a few days in Bihar, he would have been able to take credit for the results. Congress leaders in Delhi were skeptical of doing well in Bihar, and the 27 seats the Congress got were because of the Mahagatbandhan votes, and not because of the Congress.
Yet, Rahul Gandhi claimed credit for the Bihar results, claiming to be the architect of the grand alliance. He was not. It was Nitish Kumar. It was only because Lalu Yadav was unsure of conceding the chief minister’s chair to Nitish that Nitish took a flight to Delhi and made Rahul endorse him, leaving Lalu with no choice. Similarly, the buzz in Patna was that the Congress was given 40 seats counter-balance Lalu. The election could have been won by Nitish-Lalu alone.
Hope is not a strategy
In the Gujarat civic polls, the Congress was unable to make a serious dent in urban areas, which it needs to if there is to be any hope of dislodging the BJP in Modi’s home state. Some of the factors that led to its win in rural panchayats, such as the Patidar movement and agrarian distress, could well be resolved by the BJP by the time Gujarat holds the 2017 assembly polls.
Similarly, the Ratlam Lok Sabha seat in Madhya Pradesh is a tradition Congress seat, and winning it is only a sign of the decline of the Modi wave, not a sign of any revival of the Congress party. Hope is Rahul Gandhi’s only strategy – the hope that Modi will continue to flounder, and voters will have to vote for the Congress in 2019, as they will have no other option.
Even if the Congress is able to form a coalition government in 2019, its long-term decline seems unstoppable. It has already lost Andhra, Telangana and Delhi to regional leaders, and Punjab could see the same fate. In the Assam assembly elections in 2014, winning without an alliance with the AIUDF seems difficult.
There’s a saying in Hindi, mara hua haathi bhi sawa lakh ka hota hai – even a dead elephant is worth a lakh and a quarter. There is little sign of the elephant coming back to life anytime soon. The Congress is unable to show political imagination to turn things around, always giving confused and mixed signals, acting too late. The Aam Aadmi Party had already started campaigining in Punjab by the time Rahul Gandhi resolved internal feuds in the party. The Congress gave signals that its leaders could go to jail over the National Herald case, using it to earn political sympathy, but changed its mind. It’s unsure whether it wants to hire campaign strategist Prashant Kishore, and there are no signs of the revival of the party organization, something that Rahul Gandhi has supposedly been working at since he joined politics.
All that the Congress can do is disrupt Parliament, because the BJP used to do the sae. But when the BJP was disrupting parliament in the UPA years, Narendra Modi was putting in place his strategy to capture Delhi.
Inability to dominate the discourse
In 2015, the Modi government showed many cracks, losing the Delhi assembly election in the beginning of the year and the key Bihar election towards the end. This was the time when the Congress, as chief opponent and challenger, could have turned the game around. To do this, it needed to be able to set the agenda, take control of the political discourse, and change the political narrative – just as Modi did before the 2014 elections.
Modi continues to set the national agenda. He addresses a stadium full of Indians in Wembley five days after losing Bihar, surprises everyone with a Pakistan visit, announces a Constitution Day when the Congress is hoping to disrupt the parliament.
The classic example of the Congress’ poverty of imagination is Pakistan. Having pursued peace with Pakistan for ten years, the Congress is now trying to appear more jingoistic than the BJP. That is a strategy that is going to be about as successful as the BJP trying to appear secular. Instead, the Congress could have taken credit, could have gotten Manmohan to say thank you Modi ji, for taking my legacy forward. And then pointed out what Modi and the BJP were saying about talking to Pakistan from 2004 to 2014. But it seems so much easier to burn Modi’s effigies, thinking that patriotic Indians would buy the Congress’ excuses in opposing what it was doing till just the other day.
At this moment, it feels just like 2013, when the political discourse was being set by Modi and the AAP. The DDCA scam story is so old, why couldn’t the Congress have made a big hoopla out of them, using it to win the perception game over the National Herald case? Perhaps because Rahul Gandhi was busy planning his Europe holiday, hoping to relive the calm meditation he experienced in his 56 days long holiday in March-April.