Regardless of how close, or how spacious, Congress victories may be in the Hindi heartland states that just went to polls, one thing is unambiguously clear: The narrative of one-sidedness of the political contest in India has been broken by the results that came in on Tuesday. The impression of invincibility that the BJP had acquired and projected under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah ever since its decisive sweep of the 2014 parliamentary polls, which continued to deepen and spread with its serial successes in state polls since, has been punctured on the very site on which it had primarily been built. Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections, this delivers a momentum to the challenger, Congress, and a reality check to the ruler, BJP. For all the advisable health warnings and necessary disclaimers about the correlation between assembly and national state elections, it can be said that Tuesday’s tally declares the 2019 contest open. The reason why these elections are resonant well beyond their respective state boundaries is because the face-off in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh was directly between the Congress and BJP.
Since 2014, the BJP has trampled over the Congress in almost all its confrontations with that party, be it in Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh, Haryana or Jharkhand, Maharashtra or Assam. In Goa and Manipur, it trounced the Congress in post-poll manoeuvering. The Congress stole the post-poll march over the BJP in Karnataka, made it sweat for its victory in Gujarat, and won Punjab, where the BJP was not a leading player. This is the first time, however, that the Congress has defeated the BJP and won a majority in direct contests since 2014. This is also Rahul Gandhi’s first real victory to savour as president of his party — he completed one year on Tuesday. In fact, this moment belongs to him for more reasons than the fact that he led the Congress campaign from the front. Throughout the electioneering, the BJP, and Prime Minister Modi, targeted the Congress president and his family much more than they took on the Congress’s state leaders or their policies.
Their attempt was unsubtle: To impose on the several, messy contests an artificially neat template and choice — Modi vs Rahul, Naamdar vs Kaamdar (the entitled one vs someone who has worked his way up).
Now, the Congress’s crucial victories over the BJP could be read to mean either that the voter in these states has not bought into the BJP’s framing of the contest and its attempt to iron out the creases of layered contests — or that she has defied Modi and chosen Rahul Gandhi. The Congress, of course, will want to claim that it is the latter.
Yet after the celebrations are over, the Congress might also want to acknowledge this: This is not an entirely unmixed moment. If its victory could have been sweeter, as in Rajasthan, the BJP’s setback in Madhya Pradesh is not so bitter. If the Congress could not more authoritatively wrest a state where, by all accounts, the incumbent had become deeply unpopular, the BJP’s three-term government has refused to go down without a valiant fight. Moreover, outside the three heartland states, the Congress has all but bowed out of the Northeast, losing its last government in the region in Mizoram.
After the buntings are put away, the Congress must also face up to the victor’s challenge. In these elections, because of the parties’ campaigns, but more often despite them, the spotlight was on a rural distress that can no longer be ignored and relegated. Like the farmers, the Scheduled Castes will also not wait for political parties to give them attention and represent their concerns — like the farmers, India’s most marginalised groups will make themselves heard, if they have to, through non-party spaces. And, of course, their voices will be echoed in the final electoral tallies.
Now that the Congress has come to power in major states, it will have to find ways to address the agrarian discontent through welfare measures and also structural reform because the mess in state finances has severely reduced the space for it. It will also have to find the language and the sensitivity to respond to the demands of social justice for disprivileged castes in times of shrinking opportunity for all. Having won Chhattisgarh, it must also own up to the responsibility of crafting a security strategy in a region where the Naxalites still pose a formidable and recurring challenge to the state.
The Congress must also ask itself if, and to what extent, the cost of revival and resurgence must be paid in terms of the party BJP-ising itself, as was framed in the Congress president’s showy temple politics.
Certainly, the Congress has work to do — and so does the BJP. Above all, the BJP needs to recognise the limits of temple as issue, Yogi Adityanath as star campaigner, spin, machine and resources in determining election outcomes. Neither of these, nor all of these, could help the BJP to maintain its dominance in these polls in the run-up to 2019, at a time when the voters were tiring of its government.
Most of all, the BJP must accept the futility of a politics that plays upon the word “mukt”. Its exhortation of “Congress-mukt” Bharat always reeked of an intolerance to the political opponent, and to dissent in general. The Congress’s successes now have, quite literally, punched a hole in the slogan.
They have also driven home the point that the blood and sinew of a democracy like India is made up by a battle of ideas, and the possibilities of the open contest. Foregone conclusions and congealed majorities are undemocratic and boring. The people just delivered this message.