NOW OR NEVER
TO CHALLENGE MODI IN 2019, RAHUL GANDHI MUST LEARN FROM KARNATAKA AND STITCH PRE-POLL ALLIANCES WITH REGIONAL PARTIES. BUT BEFORE THAT THE CONGRESS HAS TO WIN DIRECT CONTESTS AGAINST THE BJP IN THREE STATES
WWITH LESS THAN A YEAR TO GO before the next Lok Sabha elections, the Congress—the oldest national party— has found itself associated with some embarrassing statistics. The party now has a majority in only three out of 31 assemblies—Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram—in the country, occupying 727 seats of the 4,120 assembly seats across the country. It doesn’t have a single member in five state assemblies, there are 15 states from which it has no representative in the Lok Sabha, and it rules a mere 2 per cent of the country’s total area.
Contrast that with the other, dominant, national party—BJP—that is in power in 19 states. With 104 seats in a 224-member house, it has emerged as the single largest party in Karnataka, adding another electoral achievement to the indefatigable duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, who have led the party to victory in 16 states since 2014. Yet, Congress president Rahul Gandhi aspires to challenge Modi in 2019. The rout in Karnataka indicates that the Congress has been erratic in implementing lessons learnt from consecutive defeats. And when it tried to make amends, it was too late in the day.
An example has been the difference in the Congress central leadership’s approach before and after the polls. On the noon of result day in Karnataka, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi drove to her son Rahul’s official residence at Delhi’s 12, Tughlaq Lane. There was an unusual alacrity on the part of the Congress brass. They did not want a repeat of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya where the BJP made the first move to cobble together a coalition that could touch the majority mark. From Rahul’s home, Sonia spoke to Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda, while party veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad reached out to Gowda’s son H.D. Kumaraswamy. There was no hesitation in making the offer— unconditional support and the chief minister’s chair to the JD(S), which won only 37 seats, less than half of the Congress tally of 78. Sonia was stern with Siddaramaiah, who was asked to shake hands with the Gowdas. Siddaramaiah had not spoken to the Gowdas for more than a decade since he quit the JD(S) after a bitter feud. Many in the Congress now murmur that she should have ordered this “handshake” before the polls, instead of toeing Siddaramaiah’s line despite several party veterans from the state batting for a pre-poll alliance with the JD(S). What made matters worse, in retrospect, was that Rahul had given a free rein to the outgoing chief minister.
“The appointment of K.C. Venugopal, a junior leader, as general secretary in-charge of the state ensured that there was nobody to flag Sidda-
ramaiah’s wrong decisions. We lost in a three-cornered contest, which could have been prevented with an alliance. Siddaramaiah did not let that happen because of his enmity with the Gowdas,” says a Congress general secretary.
There was also discontent among several state leaders as they felt marginalised. Leaders such as Mallikarjuna Kharge (a Dalit strongman in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region), D.K. Shivakumar, KPCC president and Dalit leader G. Parameshwara and Lingayat leader Shyamanur Shivashankarappa were not seen campaigning effectively outside their home turfs and constituencies. The Congress performed poorly in the Bombay-Karnataka and Central Karnataka regions where it lost 24 seats to the BJP. “His overconfidence brought us down,” says Vokkaliga strongman Shivakumar, who was sparingly used by the party, though he had played a key role in keeping the Gujarat Congress MLAs together in a resort during the 2017 Rajya Sabha elections.
Political analysts agree that Siddaramaiah’s one-man show alienated the others. “Though there was strong resentment among the old-timers, they did not come out in the open. The usual collective leadership of the Congress was missing in the campaigning,” says Bengaluru-based political analyst A. Veerappa.
Further, despite its late attempt to woo the Lingayats, the community did not support the Congress. “The Lingayats knew this was politically motivated. Even Lingayat leaders within the Congress were against it,” says Mysuru University research scholar N.L. Prakash. The second largest community, the Vokkaligas, was unhappy with Siddaramaiah for not favouring them in the party or in the government. Even the minorities, backward classes and Dalits did not vote for the Congress as expected.
Another factor that went against Siddaramaiah was the 3,500-plus cases of suicides by farmers between 2015 and 2017. Though he had announced loan waivers last year, the damage had already been done. “In 2015-16, he remained oblivious to the issue. It took Rahul Gandhi’s visit to wake him up. The farmers haven’t forgotten that crisis,” says Pranta Raitha Sangha (farmers’ forum) leader P.S. Kumar.
Several Congress veterans contend that the Karnataka poll debacle was a rehash of what happened in Assam two years ago. Backed by Rahul, former CM Tarun Gogoi ran a campaign on his own, refused to form an alliance with any of the regional parties and did not bury the hatchet with former deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma. A sidelined Sarma joined the BJP, formed an alliance with two regional parties and made Gogoi bite the dust. In the next two years, smart electoral understandings with local parties helped the BJP win Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and even Meghalaya, where it has only two MLAs.
What’s hurting the Congress more is the fact that in both Assam and Karnataka, the party’s vote share was higher than that of the BJP. To add to injury, West Bengal chief min-
SIDDARAMAIAH’S OVERCONFIDENCE BROUGHT US DOWN, SAYS VOKKALIGA STRONGMAN D.K. SHIVAKUMAR
ister Mamata Banerjee tweeted on May 15: “If Congress had gone into an alliance with the JD(S), the result would have been different. Very different.” The message from Mamata was loud and clear. If Rahul has to challenge the BJP and Modi in the 2019 general elections, he will have to work on stitching smart pre-poll alliances with regional parties. As was evident in Gujarat and Karnataka, Rahul alone is no match for Modi’s electoral blitzkrieg.
In the run up to the Karnataka polls, Rahul may have said that he would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate, but as the post-poll manoeuvring in the state shows, the primary goal at the moment is to stop the BJP from grabbing power. “If this objective demands bigger sacrifices—offering the PM’s chair to an ally—the Congress president is ready for it,” says a close aide of Rahul. This may sound like music to the ears of Mamata Banerjee, N. Chandrababu Naidu and K. Chandrashekar Rao, who have hinted at their reluctance to accept Rahul as their leader.
Before the final face-off in 2019, the Congress will have to engage in a direct contest with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December. Last winter, anti-incumbency and a spirited fight by the Congress led to a close contest in Gujarat. Emboldened by bypoll victories in Rajasthan and MP, the Congress hopes to reverse its fortunes in these states.
Lessons learnt in Karnataka, the party is not leaving anything to chance. It is exploring ways to forge an electoral alliance with the Mayawati-led BSP. A look at the 2013 assembly polls shows the vote share of the BSP in MP was 6.29 per cent, in Chhattisgarh 4.27 per cent and in Rajasthan 3.77 per cent—significant enough to swing the results in favour of the Congress which had 36.4 per cent, 40.3 per cent and 33 per cent in the three states, respectively. In MP, party leaders are also in touch with the Gondwana Ganatantra Party to consolidate tribal votes.
Also, unlike in Karnataka, Rahul has been able to put up a show of a united house in the northern states with a blend of old and young leadership—Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh and Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan. He knows he must win what could be the last chance at redemption for the Congress president.
AFTERTHOUGHT Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy addressing the media outside the Governor’s house in Bengaluru