In 2014, the Congress was wiped out in Rajasthan, barely managed a solitary seat in Chhattisgarh and two seats in Madhya Pradesh. But defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party in the three Hindi heartland states in late last year’s Assembly elections gave the party hope going into the general election. At the least, the Congress leadership expected to get around half of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in the three states. They were way off the mark.
The grand old party did no better than in 2014, taking two seats in Chhattisgarh and one in Madhya Pradesh, while drawing another blank in Rajasthan.
To rub salt into the party’s wounds, some of its prominent leaders were defeated with crushing margins. In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh, Ajay Singh, Vivek Tankha, Kantilal Bhuria and Arun Yadav all lost. Nakul Nath, son of Chief Minister Kamal Nath, managed to win his father’s old seat of Chhindwara, but by a small margin.
In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav lost as did Manvendra Singh, son of former BJP grandee Jaswant Singh.
So, what went wrong?
Senior Congress leaders from these states blame overconfidence, unfulfilled promises and the “Narendra Modi factor” for the rout. They would only speak anonymously for fear of angering the party’s bosses.
“Our leaders were confident about winning at least eight of the 11 seats without taking into consideration ground realities,” said a Chhattisgarh Congress leader, explaining that they expected the people to vote the same way as they did in the Assembly election, which delivered a resounding majority to the party. “There was a sense of complacency among the party’s leaders who took the voters, and the BJP, for granted. This while the BJP was running an aggressive campaign to woo voters from all sections.”
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress leadership expected last year’s 5% vote gain, which gave it 114 of the 230 Assembly seats, to remain with the party in 2019 and deliver at least half of the 29 Lok Sabha seats. “It was this overconfidence that led to Digvijaya Singh contesting from Bhopal,” said a Congress leader. “Otherwise, it made no sense for him to not contest from his family bastion of Raghogarh. And he would have won Raghogarh and given us at least two seats.”
The party similarly miscalculated in Rajasthan. It fielded many new faces instead of leaders who had contested parliamentary elections previously, leading to infighting. “They just assumed new faces will get them more votes,” said a Congress leader based in Jaipur. “You cannot dump senior leaders just like that. These people have nurtured their constituencies for years. Just because people close to Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot had to be accommodated, several deserving candidates lost out.”
After the Assembly election, Rajasthan saw a tense battle between Pilot and Gehlot for the chief ministership which eventually split the state Congress into two camps. This division was one of the main reasons for the party’s decimation in the general election, said the leader in Jaipur.
“How can two people with such differences run the party?” he asked. “They should have given Gehlot the freedom to run the government and the party. Sachin is not a grassroots leader. Even his own Gujjar community was not supporting him.”
What also cost the ruling party in Rajasthan was its failure to secure an alliance with Hanuman Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, which represents the Jat community. After his talks with the Congress failed, Beniwal made a deal with the BJP to not field a candidate against him in Nagaur. He won easily.
Campaigning for the Assembly polls, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi promised to waive off agricultural loans if his party won. This was a key reason why a substantial section of the farming community voted for the party in these heartland states.
In all three states, however, farmers claim that nearly half of them are still waiting for their loans to be waived off. Its failure to keep the promise gravely damaged the party’s prospects, said YS Sisodia, director of the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, Ujjain.
The BJP was quick to tap into the anger against the Congress for not fulfilling its promise, drawing comparisons with the PM Kisan Yojana, under which the Modi government had already deposited Rs 2,000 each in the bank accounts of most of the beneficiaries, Sisodia pointed out. “BJP’s cadres were constantly meeting farmers and telling them how the Congress had not fulfilled its promise,” he added.
The Congress did remind the voters that its hands were tied by the Model Code of Conduct, which kicked in on March 10, but didn’t convince many. “What hurt the Congress further was its denial of farmers falling for the BJP’s narrative,” Sisodia said. “By the time they realised what was happening, it was too late.”
In Madhya Pradesh, frequent power cuts also contributed to eroding the voters’ confidence in Kamal Nath’s government. “BJP workers succeeded in convincing people that if Modi did not come back to power, they wouldn’t get regular power supply, water and better roads as they did during Digvijaya Singh’s rule,” Sisodia contended. “They managed to instil fear in the minds of the people.”
It was a similar story in Chhattisgarh. “There is anger among farmers whose loans have not been waived off yet and they openly claim to have voted for BJP,” said Raj Kumar Gupt, a farmer leader in Durg.
Since the Congress took power, Gupt pointed out, “the anger among farmers against the policies of Raman Singh and Modi has subsided considerably”. Raman Singh was the state’s chief minister for 15 years until last December.
“After the government changed, anger among farmers died since their goal of ousting the BJP had been achieved,” Gupt argued. “Once the 2019 campaign started, they saw no alternative to Modi and went back to BJP. Modi’s image as a strong national leader attracted them and that I think was the biggest factor in this election.”
The Modi factor
Congress leaders agreed that the Modi’s appeal was one of the main reasons for their party’s defeat across the Hindi heartland.
A party leader based in Chhattisgarh recalled that as the campaign hotted up, they found it hard to convince people to vote for anyone other than Modi. “They would often ask who would be prime minister if a coalition government came to power,” he said. “There were very few answers to that. In any case, what do you when one party starts selling nationalism in the garb of communalism. Some voters would ask, ‘How can you be a Hindu and not vote for Modi?’”
Om Saini, a political commentator in Jaipur, said he too found this sentiment among voters. “No one wanted to talk about development, unemployment or farm distress,” he said. “In spite of having no food, the poor were suddenly more concerned about national security and nationalism. How does one explain that? The Congress was in no position to counter this narrative.”
The grand old party tried countering the Hindu nationalist narrative with a pro-poor, pro-farmer pitch, Gupt said, but it had few takers. The Rafale deal, Gabbar Singh Tax did not resonate on the ground either. “Even Rahul Gandhi’s decision to call Modi a thief backfired because people do not see him as one,” said Gupt. “Modi was in fact benefiting from their campaign which the Congress never realised.”
Girija Shankar, a political commentator in Bhopal, put it more succinctly: “The only reason the BJP won not just these three states but most parts of the country is Modi.”