As the ruling Congress was decimated in Assam and Kerala and failed to gain new ground in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, the grand old party is painfully realising that it is being slowly pushed to the margins of Indian politics, which could trigger calls within the party for unveiling of a radical new set of political ideas as well as isolated calls for bringing in Priyanka Gandhi into a leadership role.
The setbacks will also trigger a debate on whether the Congress will be able to stop the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2019, giving more currency to a narrative in favour of a third front experiment headed by the likes of either Nitish Kumar or Mamata Banerjee.
Congess Vice-President Rahul Gandhi accepted defeat but the real question is whether he can power the grand old party to a revival at the hustings. The party is now in power in only five smaller states and Karnataka. That means approximately only 6 per cent of the country’s population is under direct Congress rule, a historic new low. There could be demands for Rahul to take complete control of the party now.
What should worry the Congress most is that even the minorities, who many believed would strongly rally behind the party in Kerala, seem to have shifted to the Left in the face of an aggressive BJP campaign. The minorities perhaps believed the Left was in a better position to stop the BJP in its tracks, upsetting the calculation that a BJP rise would help the Congress by eroding the CPM’s Hindu vote and consolidating the Congress’s minority vote bank. While the Muslim League and Kerala Congress, a Christian party, more or less retained their states, the Congress lost many seats and most of its ministers bit the dust.
While the ruling Congress was expected to lose in both Kerala and Assam, what is worrying the party is that it did not gain ground in Tamil Nadu or West Bengal. While the anti-incumbency factor played a role in states ruled by the Congress, it did not have an impact on Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. In Assam, the party’s electoral strategy has come in for criticism. It did not change its face, Gogoi had been ruling the state for 15 years, and at the same time it could not stitch together any alliances or stop the Bodo party, BPF, from crossing over to the BJP camp. Equally important, it lost its key strategist, Himanta Biswa Sarma to the BJP.
Many in the party believe that had the Congress changed its leader in Assam after 2014, the situation would have been different. They also think it is time for the high command to get its act together since it faces major electoral challenges in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand next year.