Rahul Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge (centre) interacts with party leader Sonia Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi (left) addresses a press conference amid the counting of votes for the Lok Sabha elections, at the party headquarters, in New Delhi, on Tuesday, June 4. PTI

LS polls verdict takeaways: What Congress needs to do to build on current gains

After a decade of the BJP’s deepening political hegemony, the Congress and its INDIA partners had succeeded in denting brand Narendra Modi; leaving the PM-in-waiting red-faced as his bombastic claims of steering the NDA “400 paar” fell flat

As results for the Lok Sabha polls trickled in on June 4, the Congress party was justifiably jubilant. The Grand Old Party was on the threshold of breaching the 100-seat mark for the first time since 2014.

Add the victories of Vishal Patil in Maharashtra’s Sangli and Pappu Yadav in Bihar’s Purnea to its total and the Congress actually stands at 101 seats against its official figure of 99. More significantly, the INDIA bloc, of which the Congress was an obvious even if unstated fulcrum, had shocked everyone and contained the NDA coalition at a slender majority of 294 seats against the Opposition coalition’s 231 seats.

Brand Narendra Modi dented

After a decade of the BJP’s deepening political hegemony, the Congress and its INDIA partners had succeeded in denting brand Narendra Modi; leaving the PM-in-waiting red-faced as his bombastic claims of steering the NDA “400 paar” and this BJP past the 370-seat mark fell flat. Instead, the BJP failed to even cross the simple majority mark of 272 seats on its own for the first time since Modi’s ascension in 2014 as its final tally came to a screeching halt at 240 seats; the saffron party’s sole consolation being that it had managed to remain the single largest party in the Lok Sabha despite a decade-long reign and an unprecedented pushback from its political rivals.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and party leader Rahul Gandhi were quick to dub the results as a “moral defeat for Narendra Modi” and a mandate against the Narendra Modi and Amit Shah duo. Indications from the Congress camp were that over the next 24 to 48 hours, senior INDIA leaders may even attempt to convince some major NDA partners – TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu and JDU chief Nitish Kumar; both experts at political somersaults – to switch over to their side and stall Modi’s return as PM for a third consecutive term.

Whether such efforts are indeed made and, more importantly, whether they succeed is hard to gauge just yet. What is undeniable though is that the Congress and its INDIA allies have, much against the expectations of their political rivals and most political commentators, performed spectacularly against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Key takeaways for Congress from Verdict 2024

That said, it is equally true that the current euphoria within the Congress camp will eventually abate once the question of government formation settles. As such, what must then take centrestage is a dispassionate analysis within the Grand Old Party of its key takeaways from Verdict 2024 and a serious introspection of correcting the party’s deficiencies, both electoral and organisational, so that current gains do not evaporate swiftly.

On this note, the party’s poll performance, though impressive given its accumulating morass of the past decade, also offers significant ponderables for the Congress high command; none of which are flattering.

First off, the Congress will need to recognise that though its alternative governance vision, outlined through its ‘Paanch Nyay, Pachchees Guarantee’ pitch geared towards job creation and socio-economic inclusion, offered a formidable narrative to counter Modi’s self-consumed ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ plank; the party’s electoral gains weren’t solely manifesto-driven.

Rather, a closer assessment of the Congress’s performance bears out that its victories were directly associated with the added electoral heft that the party got from its allies of the INDIA bloc. Clear examples of this are seen in the gains that the Congress made in Uttar Pradesh (Congress won six of the 17 seats it contested), where most of the heavy lifting for the polls was done by the cadre of its ally, the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Akhilesh Yadav, or in Maharashtra, (13 wins across 17 seats) where it benefitted hugely due to the public’s growing resentment against the BJP-triggered betrayal of Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar by Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar, respectively. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress won all nine seats it contested, its prospects were singularly bolstered because of the formidable electoral strength of its senior ally, MK Stalin’s DMK.

On the contrary, in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal, where the Congress’s senior allies – the RJD, the JMM and the Left Front, respectively – failed to perform electorally despite visibly charged up public rallies, its own victory prospects too failed to take flight. The Congress won three of the nine seats it contested in Bihar, including the Muslim-dominated seats of Kishanganj and Katihar, two of the seven seats it fought in Jharkhand and just one of the 13 seats it contested in Bengal.

Congress draws a blank in MP, other states

Likewise, in Delhi, where the Congress and AAP fought in alliance, neither party managed to open its account despite running a very combative campaign in light of AAP convenor and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest. Kejriwal had managed to secure bail from the Supreme Court for the course of the poll campaign and did mount a belligerent pushback against the BJP but the 7:0 result in the BJP’s favour showed that neither could he drive his AAP to victory on the four seats of Delhi it contested nor help the Congress wrest any of the remaining three constituencies.

An even bigger cause of worry and introspection for the Congress should be its performance in states where it had no crutches of a formidable ally (particularly in the Hindi Heartland) and had to face off against the BJP or its allies on its own electoral muscle. This is where the Congress’s campaign took the most severe hit, directly and adversely impacting its final tally.

Like in 2014 and 2019, the Congress failed to win a single seat in the Hindi-speaking states of Himachal Pradesh (4 constituencies), Uttarakhand (5 seats) and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In Jammu and Kashmir, where it contested on the two seats of the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, the Congress drew a blank and it even failed to wrest the Ladakh constituency despite Rahul Gandhi’s very strident backing for the demands of Ladakhis to list their Union Territory under the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule.

In Orissa, where the BJP became the natural beneficiary of the shocking downfall of Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, the Congress yet again bagged just one of the 21 seats on offer. In Madhya Pradesh, the Grand Old Party failed to retain even the one seat of Chhindwara that had been its senior leader Kamal Nath’s stronghold for decades, thereby drawing a blank in the state for the first time since 1952. In adjoining Chhattisgarh too, the party continued to slide electorally, getting just one of the state’s 11 Lok Sabha seats, down from the two seats it had won five years back.

A fair appraisal of the Congress’s remarkable turnaround in Rajasthan, where for the first time since 2014 it prevented the BJP’s clean sweep by wresting eight of the 22 seats it contested – its allies, the CPM, the BAP and the RLP also bagged one seat each – would show that its victories were propelled less by the party’s organisational strength or electoral planning and more by a realignment of caste groups, the Jats, Meenas and Dalits in particular, angry with the BJP.

The Congress may have offered a formidable counter-narrative to the BJP nationally and stitched strong alliances in some states. The party’s poor results in Hindi Heartland states or southern provinces like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, however, expose the party’s failure to rebuild and nurture state-level leadership, address organisational deficiencies at the grassroots and launch poll campaigns suited for individual states, if not constituencies, instead of a pushing an overarching macro narrative.

Self-inflicted problems

Complacency, inertia and an insatiable appetite for tolerating, often even encouraging, factional feuds have been the Congress’s bane for decades. The cocktail of these self-inflicted problems went unaddressed when the Congress was in power for a decade from 2004 to 2014 and had a chance, and the resources, to reboot its decrepit organisation in several states. From 2014 to 2024, as the party sunk deeper into an existential crisis while warming the Opposition benches, the Congress leadership appeared either too scared to disrupt this status quo or too cavalier in disregarding evident red flags or simply too unthinking when experimenting with a new order.

With Verdict 2024, the Congress now has a fresh chance to take a close, hard look at its organisational flaws and to start addressing them before the next election cycle – or the next BJP assault – is upon it. A few days of euphoria over Tuesday’s electoral turnaround may be justified but the Grand Old Party needn’t look too far to realise that electoral buoyancy can be very momentary if not built upon in time. If not at the BJP, it can look upon its own fortunes in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. The three states it had stormed to power in with clear mandates over the past 18 months failed to live up to the party’s poll expectations despite assurances of a strong performance from their respective chief ministers and senior leaders.

After a decade of endurance, India may have finally fought hard and fought back against Modi and the BJP’s autocratic rule but for INDIA to sustain its momentum, the Congress must now get its act together.

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