After gains against Modi, India’s Congress party slips before election


New Delhi, India: A little more than two months ago, the Congress party, India’s biggest opposition force, seemed to be on a roll.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of what is the country’s oldest political movement, the party of Mahatma Gandhi, had attracted large crowds on a nationwide march, rekindling hopes in the Congress that had been struggling for relevance after a series of political setbacks.

In May, the party won legislative elections in the southern state of Karnataka that is home to startup capital Bengaluru, unseating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. And it was projected, in opinion polls, to win four out of five states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chattisgarh and Mizoram – that voted for their state assemblies in November.

Those predicted wins, party veterans said, would have provided the ballast for the Congress to take Modi on in the general elections that are now weeks away.

Just the opposite happened. The opinion polls were wrong. The Congress won only Telangana.

“All opinion polls showed Congress was ahead by 2 percent votes in Madhya Pradesh elections, but we lost by 8 percent of votes. How did the final results go contrary to these opinion polls?” asks senior party leader, Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of the central Indian state.

Answering that question and similar ones tied to the gulf between the party’s hopes and recent results, quickly could be central to the chances of the 138-year-old party as it prepares to lock horns with Modi in the coming national vote, say analysts and Congress leaders.

A strong showing in those state elections would have validated Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (Uniting India March), which had seen him walk more than 4,000km (2,485 miles) over 150 days, from the country’s southern tip, Kanyakumari, to Indian-administered Kashmir in the north. In most of the states that voted in November, the Congress was in a direct one-on-one contest with the BJP and was in the opposition, hoping to reap the benefits of anti-incumbency voter sentiment against the ruling government.

What went wrong?

One Congress leader in Madhya Pradesh, who requested anonymity, claimed that he had warned the party leadership that it needed to concentrate mobilisation efforts around the state’s 21 percent tribal vote, but that his attempts at persuasion failed. “Congress was very complacent,” the leader said. The BJP, he said, gained, focusing on tribal communities, and securing their votes. Many of the seats that the Congress had won in the 2018 assembly elections flipped to the BJP. The same script played out in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh where the BJP also won the bulk of seats where tribal votes dominate, reversing what had happened in 2018.

Party insiders also accuse leaders of arrogance, in spurning the offers of smaller regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, which is primarily based in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, but also has a small presence in Madhya Pradesh.

Some, like former chief minister Singh, see a more nefarious plot unfolding: he alleged that the rigging of electronic voting machines and a mechanism to keep a paper trail of voting had allowed the BJP to buck opinion polls in the recent elections.

But there is little hard evidence of systematic rigging in those elections, and critics of the Congress point out that it is quick to accept results when it wins using the same processes that it criticises while losing.

Many Congress leaders do not agree with Singh’s assertion. One of them said that in Madhya Pradesh, it was clear that the party was losing – not because of any foul play but because of poor “both management”, a reference to the practice of party workers ensuring that their voters come and vote at every polling station.

The Congress has tried to revive its fortunes by embracing regional parties in a national coalition called the INDIA alliance. That move forced the BJP to rethink its own strategy.

But since then, the BJP has successfully chipped away at the INDIA alliance: Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of the northern state of Bihar has broken away and joined the BJP-led NDA coalition. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also walked out of INDIA, though it is unclear whether she will join the NDA that she was once a part of two decades ago.

Many Congress allies have faced the wrath of law enforcement agencies controlled by the Modi government in New Delhi, such as the former chief minister of the central state of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren, who was arrested in January on corruption-linked charges that he denies.

Yet, the Congress itself is also to blame for parties breaking away from its alliance, admit party insiders. One reason? Its refusal, they say, to adequately accommodate partners in seat-sharing, a concern that Bihar’s Kumar raised, too.

At the heart of that failure is a challenge that the Congress faces, said Sanjay Kumar, political analyst and professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. It wants to collaborate with smaller parties at the moment, but in the long run wants to compete from all parliamentary seats on its own.

“The Congress party is suffering from a dilemma between the short and the long term,” said Kumar.

In a bid to shift public opinion in favour of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi has tried a repeat of his earlier long march. The Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (Uniting India Through Justice March), the latest iteration, promises to cover 6,500km (4,000 miles) from the country’s east to the west.

However, experts have questioned whether it makes sense for the party to be focusing on grand philosophical questions when the country is in the throes of winner-takes-it-all election campaigning.

“The yatra is oddly timed. When the party’s attention and imagination should be fully geared for the Lok Sabha poll, it has become a distraction,” said political analyst Harish Khare, referring to the lower house of the Indian parliament. “Neither has Rahul managed to snatch the narrative away from the BJP, nor has he enthused the Congress rank and file.”

Many of the states that the new march had passed through – including West Bengal and Bihar – were at the time ruled by INDIA member parties. Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister, publicly questioned the intent of the march passing through an ally’s state.

Critics have asked whether the march is part of an effort to build Rahul Gandhi’s own brand.

But former Indian finance minister and veteran Congress leader P Chidambaram disagrees. “Rahul is not hankering for power. If he had wanted to, he would have been PM long ago,” Chidambaram said.

Chidambaram pointed out that in a vast majority of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, INDIA alliance members would be in direct fights with the BJP and its coalition.

But while the Congress has been arguing that the coming elections are fundamentally a fight over the survival of Indian democracy, and has been painting the BJP as an authoritarian-minded force, analysts say it is struggling to win voters over to that narrative.

“The Congress does not have a positive agenda,” said Kumar, the CSDS analyst. “Even on the issue of the BJP constituting a threat to democracy and freedom of expression, the people are not really convinced about it.”

The disquiet within the party has grown in recent days. Ashok Chavan, a senior leader and former chief minister in Maharashtra – which boasts the most seats in the Lok Sabha after Uttar Pradesh – left the Congress to join the BJP. He promptly got nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.

On Friday, the Congress party alleged that its bank accounts had been frozen over allegations of tax default.

Chidambaram, who is part of the Congress team drafting the party’s manifesto, said that people were worried about inflation, which has persisted at more than 4 percent for almost all of Modi’s current term in office, and unemployment, which hovers around 8 percent.

But he acknowledged that the party would need to channel any public anger in its favour for the Congress to be “in a position to win against the BJP.” And it doesn’t have much time left.__Al Jazeera