It may not tell the story of 2024, but there are questions and self-doubts the Congress must overcome.
For a Sunday that saw clear verdicts in four assembly polls, subsequent explanations haven’t been in short supply. Amid a slew of factors attributable to the BJP’s victory in three Hindi heartland states, and the Congress’s consolation win in Telangana, the centrepiece has been the role of an organisational reset and response.
Far more than any other factor, the BJP’s success this time mainly rode on its ability to recalibrate its organisational strength to offset local challenges and consolidate its appeal. It’s a key part of the party’s arsenal whenever it finds itself in a tough fight, even if the convincing scale of its wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh do not suggest a close race. For that matter, the Congress’s win in Telangana too can be seen as a success of its organisational focus in leveraging considerable anti-incumbency against the BRS.
In more ways than have been analysed so far, these polls were influenced by the rival’s organisational drive, discipline and acumen – or, as the case may be, the lack of it.
To a large extent, the BJP’s collective push for organisation turned what was a tight race a few months ago into an emphatic win. Under the party’s central leadership, state units revamped and redirected their approach to the polls – restructuring local leadership and ticket distribution, and assigning leaders to carve specific spheres of influences.
This drive also benefited from Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the challenge of countering the Congress’s incumbent state governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP’s government was expected to encounter two decades of anti-incumbency, the campaign was reordered. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan pitched his welfare schemes to turn anti-incumbency into a pro-incumbent endorsement.
In Telangana, which had been a Congress bastion during the era of undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress launched an organisational push under Revanth Reddy to tap into the undercurrent of anti-incumbency against KCR. Here, the party leadership was unburdened by entrenched, leadership-run units and internal turf wars – something that plagued it in Rajasthan under Ashok Gehlot, in Madhya Pradesh under Kamal Nath, and in Chhattisgarh under Bhupesh Baghel. Telangana afforded the Congress more elbow room to optimise the challenger space in a state showing signs of fatigue with the BRS.
The decisive role of the BJP’s organisational superiority in retaining Madhya Pradesh and wresting back Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is fraught with the risk of overanalysis. However, that should not make one lose sight of some immediate indicators, a timeframe within which election outcomes can be placed.
First, the Congress will understandably rue the loss of what it considered winnable states just two months ago. More significantly, that it couldn’t retain power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is a poor advertisement for its offer of governance in the key heartland states. Its claims of welfarist politics did not find an electoral endorsement strong enough to retain both states.
Moreover, the Congress’s inability to replace the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh sows more seeds of self-doubt about its strategy, given it thought the BJP was vulnerable thanks to 20 years of anti-incumbency. Instead, the drubbing the Congress received may make the party sceptical about its overall messaging to voters.
Second, it’s evident that a large part of the political messaging and ideological lines taken by the Congress’s top leadership have not aligned with what’s felt or directed by its workers on the ground. In some ways, it also misread regional variations within the Hindi heartland while pitching some of its core campaign themes.
For instance, the party failed to imagine a scenario in which its pitch for a caste census would be reframed as a provider vs. enabler campaign. This juxtaposition could have been foreseen in the three states where the Mandal-era packaging of backward classes’ empowerment have now taken on a more contemporary, aspirational hue, where affirmative action is only a part of larger claims. Even in other states – such as Bihar, where such governments have been at the helm for over 30 years – the politics and political forces aligned to such demands carry the baggage of dodgy governance, insincerity, and fawning family fiefdoms. At the same time, the limits of state capacity to facilitate empowerment beyond quota politics in poor states can’t be missed.
Most importantly, the BJP’s support base and party workforce has a strong OBC presence. Hence, the party believes it’s equipped to counter the caste census pitch. And if the party sees the issue getting electoral traction, the BJP is flexible enough to join the bandwagon of such an exercise, even claiming to be its national driver.
Third, even if there are valid and empirically sound reasons to delink the assembly poll results from the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, a national party like the Congress will find it difficult to dehyphenate the two. In essence, the loss of two states in which it was in power, and its failure to dislodge the incumbent BJP government in a big state like Madhya Pradesh, will shrink the Congress’s room for leverage within the 27-party INDIA alliance.
While it remains the default occupant of the leadership space within the alliance, regional constituents are now likely to be more assertive in negotiating seat-sharing and decision-making within it. Even if the Congress remains the pivot of the opposition alliance next year, it’s possible the results will push it to be more accommodative of alliance partners in the Hindi belt.
At the same time, scepticism within the alliance will grow about its principal party’s ability to deliver a decent number of seats in 2024 – especially in seats where the Congress is in direct fight with the BJP. In 2019, the latter was able to win 171 of 186 seats where it faced the Congress as a key opponent. Even if 2024 doesn’t see such resounding dominance, the dismal strike rate doesn’t seem much improved.
This is despite the Congress’s revival of its strength down south – it won in Karnataka and Telangana this year, and leads the rival opposition alliance in Kerala. But it cannot be sure that Karnataka will vote differently in the Lok Sabha polls. Even in Telangana, the BJP may get far more than its assembly tally suggests.
In the four assembly polls, the contest was far more about the organisational will and creativity of the two principal national parties and one regional force fighting for provincial power. The Narendra Modi-led BJP prevailed with an efficient unit outthinking the opposition in three states. While this may not be the subtext of the national narrative for the 2024 polls, it’s enough to nudge many to ignore the past evidence delinking state results from national ones. So, while these outcomes may not say much about the bigger picture in 2024, it’s left probing questions and self-doubts that must be overcome.