When new Congress chief ministers take oath in the Hindi heartland in a few days, the moment will mark the party’s return to power in a region that is deemed politically salient. It will also inaugurate a new Congress innings in states that mirror many of the issues and afflictions of the country at large. The three Congress governments that will be sworn-in in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, therefore, can ill afford to lose time in getting down to work. The governance challenges in these states have been sharpened by significant tumults and transformations which also call for transitions within the Congress — from a party banished to the political wilderness in almost every former bastion, and which had seemingly lost the will to power, to one that now has the opportunity to own its victories and use them to re-energise and remake itself and its governments at a crucial time for India’s polity.
The challenges in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will be specific to their respective settings, but they also share some important themes. Congress governments must craft a response to a rural distress that is insistently knocking on political doors — and which defies simple solutions. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, the Congress manifesto promised to waive loans of farmers “within 10 days of government formation”. But it is increasingly evident that the loan waiver, or even the higher MSP, can only be band aid for a crisis that feeds upon declining farm incomes in times of surplus agricultural production, when non-agricultural employment is not being created fast enough to ease the pain. Just as the loan waiver is inadequate response to the agrarian challenge, more quotas are not the answer to the louder demands for opportunity and employment of the young across castes. Innovative and patient solutions must be found to pierce the standstill in both rural and urban areas, affected not just by a general economic slump but also disruptions like demonetisation and pangs of the GST. Technology must be harnessed for delivery, of course. But at the same time, governments must remain mindful of the perils of high-tech solutionism in a country where the digital divide is threatening to entrench yet another faultline. Governments must find new ways of listening to the concerns of women who are turning out in increasing numbers to vote — in several states their turnout overtakes that of the men. And to the insecurities of the minority communities who feel more and more cornered by the BJP’s majoritarianism and the Congress’s feeble counter to it.
Of course, the Congress governments in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will keep an eye on the big political battle of 2019. But in the end, their success in making use of the chance that the Indian people have taken on them again will depend on whether and to what extent they can take a longer view. This is what matters, this is what is at stake, as the Congress works out who will do the job in each state.