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'The Congress has to reboot'

December 08, 2023 10:04 IST
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'Revanth Reddy mounted a spirited campaign in Telangana which turned around the fortunes of the Congress in six months.'

IMAGE: Congress Parliamentary Party leader Sonia Gandhi and Telangana Chief Minister Revanth Reddy at the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium in Hyderabad after the swearing in of the Congress government, December 7, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

After the Bharatiya Janata Party's spectacular victory in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, many political observers are in a hurry to write off the Congress and Rahul Gandhi.

Not Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

"The Congress is very much in the game notwithstanding this very big upset," Professor Hasan tells's Shobha Warrier.


When we spoke after the UP state elections in 2022 when the BJP had a massive victory, you had told me that it was a turning point in India's electoral history.
How do you describe these assembly election results?

I think the remarkable victory of the Congress in Telangana would have been the storyline of this round of elections if they had not suffered such a great defeat in the three Hindi heartland states.

This overshadowed its major victory in Telangana.

In the larger scheme of things, the Hindi heartland matters as these states have a large number of Lok Sabha seats.

In fact just the three states of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, have 65 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 62 seats.

Generally, there is a limited corelation between the state assembly elections and the Lok Sabha election. In 2018, the Congress had won all these three states. Yet, they lost in the Parliament elections in 2019. That election was somewhat exceptional as national security became a big issue after the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strikes.

But these elections have dented the Congress' credibility and it is bound to demoralise the party with the 2024 Lok Sabha election just a few months away.

What according to you are the reasons behind such a defeat for the Congress in the Hindi heartland?

Several reasons are responsible for this defeat.

The Congress has done badly even though it put up a spirited fight. Its governments had good governance record.

And the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were not unpopular.

Moreover, the Rajasthan government introduced important social welfare schemes including Chiranjeevi health scheme and also proposed an Urban Employment guarantee scheme.

The Congress tried to highlight issues like joblessness and caste discrimination in the hope that it would appeal locally in the state elections and nationally in the general elections.

But its two-pronged plank of welfare schemes and social justice was upstaged by the subtext of Hindu nationalism and communal politics.

The BJP victories highlight the consolidation of Hindu nationalism and the great resonance it enjoys in the heartland states.

The capture of the state machinery, ample financial resources and the party's organisational framework buttressed by RSS cadres have helped to promote its propaganda as a champion of strong nation, development, welfarism, as well as Hindu interests and Hindu religion.

Do you think while the Congress retained its vote share, the BJP captured the votes from the smaller parties and that made the difference?

Yes, despite its defeat, the Congress has managed to retain its vote share -- Madhya Pradesh 40.40 percent, Rajasthan 41.69 percent, Chhattisgarh 42.23 percent.

The BJP has gained mostly at the expense of 'others' in the fray.

It has expanded its dominance of a key region ahead of general elections in 2024, but the Congress vote share holds considerable significance in the run up to the general elections.

IMAGE: Narendra D Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's supreme leader, is garlanded by former BJP presidents Rajnath Singh and Amit A Shah during the BJP's victory programme after the party won the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, December 3, 2023. Photograph: Ayush Sharma/ANI Photo

Where did it go wrong for the Congress?

This election signifies the consolidation of Hindu nationalism.

In the face of this consolidation during the last few years and the enormous clout the BJP has gained, the Congress plank of welfare and social justice did not work.

It was overtaken by Hindu nationalism and social polarisation in all these states, apart from the fact that in Chhattisgarh according to reports, the state government did not take any major initiatives with regard to social welfare and it alienated trubal groups who have largely voted for the BJP.

The shift of the tribal vote is a big loss for the Congress because at one time it had strong support in this group. Not anymore.

We saw the same story in UP also, the consolidation of Hindu nationalism....

UP is a different story. UP is the citadel of the Hindu right. It has acquired a permanent social constituency in that state.

The BJP's social coalition has the support of upper castes and large sections of OBCs.

The strategy there is to unite the 80% and to isolate 20% of the population.

During the election, they used to talk about 80-20...

Yes, they have focused on the 80%. In the other Hindi speaking states which went to the polls in November, Muslims do not form a significant population.

These are dominantly Hindu states, and Hindu identity politics has huge resonance here.

But this is not all. There are several other reasons.

From the outset, the BJP campaign pivoted on Prime Minister Narendra D Modi relegating established state leaders to the sidelines.

You mean, these state leaders were fighting against Narendra Modi? He himself said, Modi ki guarantee....

Yes, the Congress gave free hand to the state leaders, but it was actually a fight between them and Modi.

The party decided not to go with a chief minister candidate for any of the states going to poll.

This meant that even popular state leaders of the Congress like Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Singh Baghel were not pitted against their local BJP counterparts, but against Modi himself.

The huge popularity of the prime minister in north India neutralised the public acceptance of these leaders.

The Congress strategy of projecting state leaders like it did in Karnataka or Telangana did not work in these states because here the contest was between the Congress state leadership and Prime Minister Modi who is extremely popular in the Hindi heartland.

Also, the infighting and overweening ambitions of its state leaders in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh put paid to the Congress strategy.

Factionalism and divided leadership, which has been the undoing of the Congress in many states, was on full display throughout its term in office in these two states.

Leaders were attacking each other until a few months before the elections, which sent a message to voters that this this was a party that couldn't keep its house in order.

IMAGE: Congress leaders at Revanth Reddy's swearing in as Telangana chief minister, December 7, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Don't you think it is time the Congress thought about young leaders, a generational shift?

It should have happened definitely in Madhya Pradesh. Kamal Nath was not the right choice to lead the party. He is not a mass leader.

The Congress needs new leaders in many of these states. It tried doing so in Punjab, but that did not work.

Also, the Congress call for a caste census did not work on the ground.

They did it to undercut the BJP's hold over the OBCs, but that did not happen.

Caste census was not an effective counter to Hindu identity politics, which holds much greater appeal for subaltern caste groups in the current conjuncture.

But again in south India, the Congress gets the support of the OBCs which is not so in north India.

In Telangana, they mobilised the support of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims. This combination really worked apart from the fact that they had a dynamic leader like Revanth Reddy. He mounted a spirited campaign which turned around the fortunes of the Congress in six months.

Social media was used effectively, and the Congress had a huge number of rallies and mobilised people on the ground.

What about Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra? Do you think it helped in Telangana?

The Bharat Jodo Yatra had an impact in Karnataka and Telangana. But it did not seem to have had the same impact in the Hindi heartland.

Perhaps the kind of mobilisation that followed the yatra in Telangana or Karnataka did not happen in MP or Rajasthan.

There's another difference between the south Indian states and the north Indian states.

The Congress has a stronger organisation in South India, but it is not so in north India.

This election also showed that the Hindi heartland is totally saffronised while the south of the Vindhyas is not...

Politics of Hindu nationalism does not have the same appeal in south India as it does in in north India.

There are several reasons for this, one major reason is that Partition did not have an impact there as it did in north India, consequently, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is not a major issue in south India, except in some parts.

Hindu nationalism that is so strong in the northern part of India, has so far not found that kind of support in the south.
Do you think it will spread to this part of India also?

There are differences between the north and south. It is not that Hinduism does not matter in south India. It surely matters.

But Hinduism is not a political issue in south India in the same way as it is in the north.

But this is not to deny that communal tendencies exist in south India, more so in some states than others, for example, the Karnataka.

The potential for the BJP exists there, but so far it has not been as successful in the South India as it is in the Hindi heartland.

Do you feel what made the difference in these elections was Modi?

Yes, it was a Modi-centric election. The Karnataka election also was Modi-centric, yet the BJP lost.

So, if we attribute the Karnataka loss to Modi, we must give credit for the victory in these three states to Modi and his popularity.

Also, their welfare schemes and good delivery of them has worked.

More importantly, the BJP was able to communicate this to the people as they have a huge organisation for doing this.

After the UP election, you had said that it was an existential cisis for the Congress. Do you feel the party is coming out of the crisis now?

The resounding defeat in these three states is a major setback to the hopes of Congress revival.

Even though it has retained its vote share in these states, the Congress faces major organisational problems.

It lacks a grass roots organisation, it is way behind the BJP on the organisational and electoral management front.

In addition, it lacks a forthright ideological position, it needs some big ideas to mobilse people in its favour.

The Congress has to reboot its political discourse which is best done by advocating a positive agenda that can galvanise the electorate, and goes beyond the current focus on the negative aspects of the ruling dispensation.

So, overall the Congress is not facing an existential crisis, however, it is not resurgent either, but it is very much in the game notwithstanding this very big upset.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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