Recovering from the North-East setback, Rahul-led Congress must attempt a turnaround in the upcoming state polls.
Is the Congress sliding further after its poor performance in the North-East, though as a saving grace, it emerged as the single largest party in Meghalaya? The BJP and its allies are in the process of forming the government in all the three states – Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, dampening the spirits of the Congress party. There was a time when the people of the North-East, especially the Tribals, could connect with the Congress leaders. But, in the past few years, the field has been left open for the regional parties and now, also to the BJP.
Just one year ago, the Congress was in the saddle in five northeastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. With Saturday's victory, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will gain control over six of the seven northeastern states, considerably reshaping the political landscape of the region bordering Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Mizoram is the only state the Congress is ruling in the North-East and this too might change after it goes to polls at the end of the year.
The rise of the BJP began with the party winning Assam in 2016. The party later reigned in Arunachal by luring Congress MLAs including Chief Minister Pema Khandu. Thereafter, the BJP coalition formed the government in Manipur last year with Biren Singh as the CM – despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the state.
What does losing the region mean for the Congress? Why has the party not seen that with a population of 45.58 million, the North-East accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats and 498 assembly seats? It is indeed a mystery, which only the Congress strategists can explain. The Congress strategists are confident that losing the northeastern region does not mean that the 132-year-old party is finished. The party has witnessed several ups and down. It may be now ruling in only Punjab, Mizoram, Karnataka and Puducherry but it still has some base in the country and also retains its vote share.
After the improved performance in Gujarat and winning the recent by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress workers were enthused and hoped that the party would go up the ladder in the uncertain game of snakes and ladder. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the Congress did not put serious efforts in the northeastern polls. Even Meghalaya, it left it to the chief minister Mukul Sangma. It was not in the fight in Nagaland and Tripura, evident in the result that the Congress party has not won a single seat in both the states. To its dismay, the party's votes shifted to the BJP and its vote share has also come down. The people of Tripura obviously thought that the Congress was not an alternative and decided to give a chance to the BJP.
The fact that the Congress President Rahul Gandhi took off to visit his grandmother in Italy without even waiting for the results showed that he was not serious about winning in the region. Though the party might have been disappointed with the results in the North-East, it is going ahead with its plans to retain Karnataka where the elections are due in May. The Congress President Rahul Gandhi has visited the state quite a few times, even praying at temples and mutts by adopting a soft Hindutva card. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been given a free hand so far, which is what the party did in Punjab and that had paid its dividends. Retaining Karnataka will provide a much-needed morale boost to the party to face the elections in the other three big states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, while also retaining Mizoram where elections are scheduled later in the year.
In all these states, the fight is direct between the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP. In Chattisgarh, there is hardly a 1.5 per cent difference in the vote share between the two. There is a big chance for the Congress to wrest these states because the BJP is facing serious anti-incumbency. This can happen only if the Congress pulls up its socks and contains the factionalism and groupism besides coming up with attractive poll issues and projecting itself as an alternative to the ruling BJP. Enthused by the recent by-election wins in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress strategists are enthusiastically chalking out their plans. The leadership also has to decide who would lead the party in these states.
The Congress is having its plenary session from March 16 to 18, in which it may decide its future course of action along with methods to deal with the BJP and ways to unite the opposition. The ten thousand odd delegates converging from all over the country will have a sense of participation in the party affairs.
There is no doubt that the new Congress President has a lot on his plate and he needs to prepare for the future with great care if he wants the Congress to be in the reckoning. The immediate challenge is Karnataka and then come the polls for the other states, ending with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Since taking over, Rahul Gandhi has not revealed how he plans to go about rejuvenating his party. He also has not announced his new team. The coming days and months will show how it all shapes. Above all, he has to take the lead in mobilising the opposition and this is not going to be easy with the inherent contradictions in the opposition ranks. For all this, he does not have too much time.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)