Boosted by its performance in the Gujarat Assembly election in December and victory in the Rajasthan bye-polls this month, the Congress has come to believe that Narendra Modi’s days as prime minister are numbered even if his Bharatiya Janata Party retains power in 2019. The logic runs thus: the BJP will lose its majority in the next general election, which means its allies will get to decide the leader – and they will prefer anyone but Modi.

“You can be sure Modi will not get a second term as prime minister,” claimed a senior Congress leader. “The next government will be formed by a Congress-led alliance or a BJP-headed alliance under another leader.”

Another top leader argued that the Congress’s “tough challenge” to the BJP in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat has demonstrated that Modi is not invincible. Moreover, Congress leaders believe anti-incumbency is rising against the BJP governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Haryana which, they said, will be reflected in its reduced strength in the Lok Sabha. The BJP had scored heavily in these states in the last election primarily because of the unpopularity of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and Modi’s personal charisma. As a result, the Congress, was reduced to a paltry 44 seats in the last Lok Sabha election.

But its recent performance has provided a much-need boost to the Congress whose leaders are convinced that the party’s fortunes are looking up. “We will pick up at least 60-80 more seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2019 election,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

The Congress is also feeling upbeat as the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha has fallen from 282 to 273 after losing a series of bye-elections in recent months. This is just one more than the half-way mark in the 545-member house. The Congress’s tally, on the other hand, has gone up to 48, and the party is sensing more success in the upcoming bye- elections to seven more Lok Sabha seats – Gorakhpur, Phulpur, Anantnag, Araria, Palghar, Bhandara-Gondia and Kairana. “These elections will be another test for the BJP,” said a Congress leader. “The results will show the extent of disillusionment against the Modi government.”

The recent show of muscle-flexing by the BJP’s allies, Congress leaders believe, is another indication that the saffron party’s ratings are slipping. The Shiv Sena has declared it will not ally with the BJP in the next general election, the Telugu Desam Party is threatening to walk out of the ruling National Democratic Alliance because the Modi government’s promised financial package for Andhra Pradesh has not materialised, and the Shiromani Akali Dal has counselled the BJP to treat its partners better. While all this could well be put down to posturing before the next election, the Congress sees it as a sign of the BJP’s diminishing dominance.

Tough task

At the same time, Congress leaders’ confidence about a possible comeback is tempered by the realisation that Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah will put up a stiff fight as is their wont. Indeed, a section in the party has been advising its younger leaders to remain alert as Modi can “pull out a rabbit from his hat” in the run-up to the next election. “I don’t think we should underestimate Modi,” said a Congress leader who is convinced the prime minister will make dramatic moves to change the public mood in the BJP’s favour in time for the election. “We won’t be surprised if Modi decides to go to war with Pakistan to deflect attention from his failed economic policies.”

On its part, the BJP is aware that it might be losing its sheen. The party is thus working overtime to win the upcoming Karnataka Assembly election in order to shore up its credentials and send out a message that it is still very much in the driver’s seat. Though BJP leaders privately admit that they are locked in a tough contest with the Congress in the southern state, they maintain that their “superior organisational skills” will see them through. Winning Karnataka will not only add to the tally of BJP-ruled states, it will also help silence its newly assertive allies as well as critics of Modi and Shah within the party who have been feeling emboldened to speak up because they believe the BJP is on shaky ground.

While insisting that there is a perceptible change in the public mood against the BJP, senior Congress leaders point out that they cannot sit back and wait for the BJP to crash or depend on the saffron party’s allies to pressure it to choose another leader. Modi and Shah’s grip over the BJP is just too firm. “We have a long way to go and have to work very hard before we can think of dethroning Modi,” said a senior Congress leader.

To this end, the senior leader said, the Congress needs to strengthen its grassroots organisation and end factional feuds in its state units. The party must unveil a roadmap for reviving the economy, tackling the agrarian crisis and generating jobs. It also needs to stitch up alliances well ahead of the election, the senior leader said, since it does not have the wherewithal to take on the BJP’s electoral machine on its own, especially in big states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.