When the Congress dethroned the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December, the party seemed convinced that its winning streak would continue till the Lok Sabha polls and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on shaky ground.
The Congress seemed confident that an angry electorate would reject the Bharatiya Janata Party in the next round of elections for its failure to deliver on its promise of “achhe din”, and it was only a matter of time before the saffron party was relegated to the Opposition benches.
But the Congress had clearly not bargained for Modi’s and BJP president Amit Shah’s ability to fight back and get back into the game. While Shah went about stitching up alliances with the BJP’s sulking allies in various states, the Modi government took a cue from the Assembly poll results and got down to winning back those sections of society that were disenchanted with the BJP.
The Centre swiftly brought in a constitutional amendment Bill providing 10% reservation for economically weaker sections among the upper castes to placate members of the community who were upset with the BJP for leaning towards the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes.
Since agrarian distress had emerged as a dominant issue in the Assembly polls, the Centre moved quickly to offer a special package for farmers in the interim budget on February 1, with a special provision for an income support scheme for the agrarian community.
Though it was on the defensive after its defeat in the three Hindi heartland states, the BJP is now back to its old aggressive self after the February 14 Pulwama terror attack and India’s retaliatory air strikes against Pakistan on February 26.
Overnight, the political narrative has shifted from livelihood issues to nationalism, which is predictably being magnified by the BJP leadership and its cadre with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections that will be held between April 11 and May 19, with counting on May 23.
A helpless Congress, meanwhile, is scrambling to get its act together. Pitted against the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery, its deep pockets and Modi, who is being projected as a strong and decisive leader, the Congress is finding it difficult to even hold on to the states that it won less than three months ago, having lost momentum since then.
Except for Chhattisgarh, where the Congress cruised to a convincing victory over the BJP, the party is on shaky ground in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Having formed governments in these two states with a wafer-thin margin and, that too with the help of rebels, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, the Congress has to contend with a strong and well-entrenched BJP organisation in both Madhya Pradesh, which has 29 Lok Sabha seats, and Rajasthan, which has 25.
In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, the saffron party may be down but is not out. The initial disappointment over losing power has now given way to aggressive posturing by the BJP cadre as word on the street is that the Madhya Pradesh government, headed by Kamal Nath, is living on borrowed time and will collapse after the Lok Sabha elections.
“The craze for the BJP is not over here,” remarked a political observer who did not wish to be identified. “Madhya Pradesh has always been a BJP stronghold and after the Pulwama attack, the party is back in the reckoning.”
Modi remains a big draw with the people of this state and there is a lot of sympathy for former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The Assembly election was essentially dominated by local factors and massive anti-incumbency against BJP ministers, which reflected in the final tally when as many as 13 state ministers lost their seats.
The Congress happened to be the beneficiary of the public anger against these legislators. However, these issues have now taken a backseat as Modi and the nationalism agenda take centre stage.
Even during the Assembly election campaign in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a common refrain was that people would vote out the BJP from the two states but pick Modi for the Centre as he was their choice to lead the nation.
The BJP may not succeed in repeating its 2014 election performance, when it won 27 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh, but it is not expected to take a massive beating either.
Congress leaders privately admit that their party is unlikely to make substantial gains in the general elections. The Congress is not helped by the fact that the Kamal Nath government does not appear to be a cohesive unit with ministers constantly pulling each other down in full public glare.
Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, who has a far better connect with the party cadre, has emerged as a parallel power centre with state ministers explaining themselves to him and even holding press conferences to respond to Singh’s remarks. There have been several instances when Singh has openly chided ministers, which has obviously not gone down well with those in the firing line.
Kamal Nath has closeted himself in the chief minister’s office and though he is said to be working round-the-clock, he is not seen in the field sufficiently enough for the public to establish a rapport with him.
The government’s flagship scheme – the loan waiver for distressed farmers – has come to a halt after the model code of conduct came into force. Farmers whose loans have been waived are not particularly cheering the new Congress government as the amounts waived are ridiculously small, while those who paid their loans are sulking.
Similarly, the Congress government’s bid to woo the substantial population of backward classes has proved to be a non-starter as the state’s ordinance raising reservations for the Other Backward Classes from 14% to 27% is unlikely to be rolled out before the general elections.
The story in Rajasthan is no different. Unlike his Madhya Pradesh counterpart, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has a firm grip on the government but the party is not reaching out to the people.
The BJP’s cadre, energised by the post-Pulwama nationalist narrative, has fanned out to spread the party’s message. The Congress organisation, on the other hand, is not in good shape.
Congress insiders admit privately that they lost the plot in the Assembly election, when the party failed to get past the majority mark on its own. “People wanted to vote for us but we kept pushing them away,” said a senior Congress leader. “Nothing has changed since then.”
Rajasthan Congress leaders agree that the BJP will not win all of the state’s Lok Sabha seats as it did in 2014, but concede it has certainly minimised its losses.
According to Sanjay Lodha, a political science professor at Udaipur’s Mohanlal Sukhadia University, even during the December Assembly election, it was noticed that the BJP enjoyed a 6%-7% edge with regard to the Lok Sabha polls. Moreover, the people of Rajasthan have also been influenced by the nationalism narrative being pushed by the BJP post-Pulwama.
“People have always been impressed with Modi’s leadership,” said Lodha. “He was their preferred choice for the prime minister’s post even during the Assembly polls. I don’t think the situation has changed much in the last two months.”
After coming to power, Gehlot has made a slew of announcements like farm loan waivers, free medicines and no electricity hike for agriculturists for the next five years, said Lodha, but the question is whether any of these decisions have been implemented in time. “It is for the Congress organisational machinery to encash these pronouncements,” Lodha said. “But it is also a fact that the Congress is known for its organisational deficit.”
Poor communication is also proving to be the Congress party’s undoing.
Since Congress President Rahul Gandhi cannot compete with Modi as far as oratory is concerned, he will have to depend on state leaders like Gehlot, Sachin Pilot, Kamal Nath, and Digvijaya Singh to deliver for the party.
Pointing to the recent controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s reference to the Jaish chief as Masood Azhar Ji, Congress leaders said that the BJP succeeded in running a national campaign on the issue while their party was unable to pin down the saffron party for releasing the jailed terrorist and escorting him to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999.
A Rajasthan leader put it well, “A person who speaks well can get away by selling fake wares but a poor orator finds it difficult to sell genuine jewels.”