Make or break for Congress

Harihar Swarup

The coming elections in the five states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram — have been rightly described as the “semifinal” to 2019 Lok Sabha polls. With the announcement of these elections, India has well and truly entered the poll season. Doubtless, the stakes are higher for the Congress but the popularity of the BJP too will be put to test in the coming assembly elections of the five states. The Congress hopes to rejuvenate the party by romping home in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it is pitted against the BJP. A victory will signal the Congress is on comeback trail. Long years of BJP rule has generated a strong anti-incumbency wave. Chief Ministers of the three states Vasunhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have become quite unpopular.
If the Congress is able to oust BJP, at least, in MP and Rajasthan, it would mark a sense of revival of the party, burnish Rahul Gandhi’s credentials as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, give the party much needed resources and confidence for 2019 poll and enhance its negotiating capacity with smaller parties for the Great Alliance in making.
If the Congress loses MP and Chhattisgarh, despite the anti-incumbency that has been built up over three terms, then even if it wins Rajasthan, it will appear to be a weak player for 2019. After all, big cries have hit these two states. Farmers’ distress persists in MP and Vyapam scam took its toll. And, Raman Singh continues to face challenges from the Left extremist groups in Chhattisgarh, which is why Election Commission has ordered the election to be held in two phases.
The Congress is doing very well in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The party has sunk state level differences and united to face the coming poll. The state leaders have been saying it is a do-or-die matter for them. Three things appeared to have worked out for it in the desert state, which is known to be changing government every five years. One, the arrogance and growing unpopularity of the incumbent chief minister Vasundhara Raje. Showcasing of the Prime Minister as party’s mascot aims to contain this damage.
Two, Rahul Gandhi gave the stewardship of Rajasthan early enough in February 2014, to Sachin Pilot to retrieve the state for the Congress. Pilot got down to the task in earnest, shifted his base to Jaipur, toured five lakh km through the state in last four years to rebuild the organization and did not let go any opportunity to corner Raje. This is now beginning to show results.
The third factor is to what extent young and old can come together. Ashok Ghelot is still popular in rural Rajasthan and many want him to be CM again. Pilot is the icon of young, and his elevation will give an impetus to the futuristic politics of Rahul Gandhi.
Both are contenders for the CM’s office if Congress gets majority. They have, however, shown maturity and restraint, and campaigned together. The best sight was Sachin driving a motorbike and Ghelot riding the pillion with his hands on Pilot’s shoulders. In Madhya three biggies —Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia — have united and so is party’s rank and file with a determination to snatch power from the BJP. Kamal Nath, who heads the state Congress, tried his best to forge an alliance with Mayawati but could not succeed. There is a 15 per cent Dalit population in the state. Kamal Nath says Mayawati’s refusal to have a pact with the Congress would not make a difference. On the other hand, BSP supremo will be loser. Little surprise if she draws a blank.
Almost the entire leadership of the Congress in Chhattisgarh was wiped out in a Naxal attack a few years ago. The present leaders have united, but Mayawati’s alliance with the rebel Congress leader Ajit Jogi is causing concern.
Telangana is a new state: the victory of the incumbent or an alternative coalition will have an impact on the economics and institutional foundation of the state institutions. Mizoram is the only north-eastern state that does not have a government aligned to ruling NDA. Will the BJP be able to make inroads even in this Christian-dominated state?
It goes without saying that a Congress victory in the heartland states will strengthen the party’s bargaining position with regional parties for the big battle that lies ahead of 2019.
But it would be hasty to describe the five state polls as a laying the ground for 2019 election. Even if the Congress were to win all three Hindi heartland states, it would not necessarily lead to its emergence as the single largest party in 2019. (IPA)

Thursday, 25 October, 2018