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

India Today - - COVER STORY | KARNATAKA ELECTIONS | CONGRESS - By Kaushik Deka with Aravind Gowda

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

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