The Congress can at least say this much: It did better than its 2014 tally. The fact, however, is that Rahul Gandhi’s party, as of leads at 5 pm, looks set to only win 7 more seats than it did five years ago.
Back then, it could point to anti-incumbency after 10 years in power and the tremendous rise of the Narendra Modi. Neither reason stands any longer. Modi is no longer an unknown commodity at the national stage and the Congress has had five years to craft a response to his prime ministership.
The result, as mentioned above, is just 7 more seats. 51 this time, compared to the 44 in 2014.
Of course, that simplifies it a bit. The Congress has spent the last few years attempting to work together with other parties and remain relevant in the face of a BJP onslaught, both political and institutional. After all, it was the stated aim of Modi to make India ‘Congress-mukt’, free of the Congress.
This has not been achieved. The 2019 elections solidify the party’s presence in Punjab, and it also looks likely to win nearly all the seats in Kerala, where the Left is currently in power. Plus, its alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu has borne fruit, with the coalition set to win 35 of 38 seats.
But practically everywhere else, the party is in deep trouble. The BJP has routed it completely in the Hindi states, where the saffron party has yet again won nearly every seat. This is even true for the three states, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which the Congress won in assembly elections just a few months ago.
It is also wilting or disappearing from the East and the North-East, except in a few places. In Karnataka, where the Congress managed to outsmart the BJP and cobble together a government with the Janata Dal (Secular) after state elections in 2017, the BJP has still won 25 of 28 seats.
The four seats expected in Telangana might suggest it remains a player there, but this is bittersweet, because the Congress was at least partly responsible for creating the state (when it was bifurcated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014) and yet has seen almost no electoral gains for doing so.
Maharashtra, where the party tied up with the Nationalist Congress Party, is a particular disappointment, since the conditions there were perfect for an anti-incumbency vote. Yet the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance has ended up with 41 of the 48 seats in the state. The Congress-NCP have just 6.
Maybe most tellingly, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, as of 5 pm, is trailing in Amethi, for long a pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family. A loss to the BJP would only cement the feeling that the party simply cannot compete with the BJP in North India.
Must the Congress die?
These trends seemed evident after the exit polls came out on the 19th, prompting psephologist-politician Yogendra Yadav to say on Twitter that the “Congress must die.” Political scientists Suhas Palshikar responded to this, making the argument that the Congress still draws a significant number of votes nationally, and its apparatus remains useful for anyone hoping to put up an actual fight against the BJP.
But the question might have to be more specific: What can the Congress do to actually compete? Does it have the leadership needed to do so?
The loss in 2014 seemed both anomalous and also so much of an existential threat that the party did not even consider dispensing with its leadership, anchored around the Nehru-Gandhi family, at the time.
But the same result two General Elections in a row suggests this is no fluke, and that the Congress does not have an answer. Will its process of introspection look different this time around?