Ending its near eclipse and breathing new life into Opposition attempts to set up a united front against the BJP-led NDA in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress returned to the Hindi heartland with impressive gains in the assembly elections Tuesday, routing the BJP in Chhattisgarh after 15 years. The party is set to form the government in Rajasthan and has staked claim in Madhya Pradesh though, until late at night, the seesaw battle for power in Bhopal continued.
That nine of the 13 Independents elected in Rajasthan and the four Independents in Madhya Pradesh are all Congress rebels appeared to have tilted the scales in the favour of the party in these two states.
MP Congress president Kamal Nath sought a late night appointment with the Governor on behalf of his party to form the government. In his letter to Raj Bhavan, he underlined that all the Independents have assured support to the Congress.
In the evening, Congress president Rahul Gandhi declared victory in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, giving the credit to “party workers, farmers, youth and small businesses”. He thanked the outgoing Chief Ministers of the BJP-ruled states for their achievements, saying “it is time for change and we will take their work forward”.
Soon after, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a series of tweets, congratulated the Congress “for their victories” and said: “We accept the people’s mandate with humility. I thank the people of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan for giving us the opportunity to serve these states. The BJP Governments in these states worked tirelessly for the welfare of the people.”
He also congratulated “KCR Garu for the thumping win in Telangana” and “the Mizo National Front (MNF) for their impressive victory in Mizoram”. Thanking his party workers, he said “victory and defeat are an integral part of life”.
Union Minister Arun Jaitley, while conceding that the “result was certainly not as expected”, said it was time for the party leadership to “pause and introspect”. On the defeats in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh where the BJP was in power for 15 years, he said: “I don’t think there was anti-incumbency but fatigue factor does come in.”
As the results came in and it became clear that the Congress had finally managed to buck the trend of electoral reverses and voter alienation — it lost power in a dozen states since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — Ashok Gehlot spoke not just for his party in Rajasthan but Congressmen elsewhere too: “People did not have the confidence that anybody can actually defeat Narendra Modi. And today’s victory has dispelled that perception.”
Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan together account for 65 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP had won 62 in 2014 when the Modi wave swept the Hindi heartland.
For the Opposition, there is a significant takeaway from the verdict Tuesday — that the BJP under Modi is no longer invincible.
The victory is doubly sweet for the Congress because it is the first time that the party has defeated the BJP in a direct fight since 2014. It came close in Gujarat but the BJP eventually raced past the post. Yet the success in this round pose challenges as well. While Congress leaders feel it will give the party bargaining rights with regional parties when it comes to seat sharing, they also admit it also will inject a sense of insecurity among them.
Echoing this sentiment, senior CPI leader D Raja told The Indian Express: “It will strengthen the Congress, also strengthen all secular, democratic parties. Everyone will have to draw lessons and be mutually accommodative and realistic so that the unity of secular and democratic forces is taken forward to ensure the defeat of the BJP in the 2019 elections.”
Leaders in the Opposition said had the Congress tied up with the BSP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the results would not have been so close.
At the same time, the Congress has been quick to project the outcome as some sort of a referendum on the Modi government. Even Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, who cashed in on the anti-incumbency mood against the Vasundhara Raje government, suggested that the reverse countdown for the BJP has begun.
Pilot told The Indian Express that the vote is against the BJP, both in Jaipur and Delhi. “The three states were bipolar states… where the BJP and the Congress fought head to head… if they are losing in all the three, that means the writing is on the wall… the BJP will not be able to form the government in 2019,” he said.
For now, the Congress has to decide on the Chief Ministers in the three states. While Gandhi said “it will be done smoothly”, the Congress has sent AICC general secretary K C Venugopal to Jaipur where he will preside over a meeting of newly elected MLAs Wednesday morning.
Senior leaders A K Antony and Mallikarjun Kharge will travel to Bhopal and Raipur respectively to oversee government formation efforts. Congress sources said the party will keep the Lok Sabha elections in mind while electing the CLP leaders.
While Gehlot and Pilot are in the race for the top job in Rajasthan, the frontrunners in Chhattisgarh are former Leader of Opposition T S Singh Deo, state party chief Bhupesh Baghel, and AICC OBC department chief Tamradhwaj Sahu. In Madhya Pradesh, the choice is between Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia.