The Congress party, aspiring for a resurgence in the Hindi heartland following successes in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, faced a harsh reality check from Narendra Modi's resurgent BJP. The grand old party suffered significant setbacks in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh assembly elections.
Despite the only silver lining on Sunday being the addition of Telangana, a state with 17 Lok Sabha seats, to the Congress's tally, the party knows very well that it makes little difference to its chances of returning to power at the Centre in 2024.
What led to the Congress's disappointing performance in the Hindi heartland, despite an energised cadre following Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra and efforts to shape narratives on issues like the alleged Adani scam, caste-census, and more? With only 6 months left for the crucial Lok Sabha elections, here are areas where the Congress failed and could enhance its strategies and present a formidable challenge against the dominant BJP.
Fix unruly old guard
Narendra Modi's ascent onto the national stage marked a generational transformation within the BJP. Several senior leaders were directed to retire to the Margdarshak Mandal, while others were explicitly told to 'fall in line or fall aside' under the guidance of the new leadership shaping the party's direction.
On the contrary, the Congress continues to grapple with the influence of figures like Naths and Gehlots. Kamal Nath wielded significant control over the MP election campaign, excluding star campaigners Rahul and Priyanka, asserting that 'only their blessings' were sufficient for victory. He even rejected assistance from Sunil Kanugolu, Rahul's prominent election strategist. Kanugolu, meanwhile, helped Revanth Reddy snatch Telangana from KCR's BRS. Nath's controversial 'Akhilesh-Vakhilesh' remark regarding the SP chief further strained relations with the INDIA alliance partner, impacting the Congress by eroding votes on multiple seats.
Gehlot, on the other hand, was aware of the anti-incumbency in the state, and still distributed tickets to sitting MLAs who were facing wrath of electorate. Rahul Gandhi, who hardly campaigned in the state, was not happy with the Gehlot having his ways with ticket distribution. In a party meeting after the ticket distribution was done, Rahul Gandhi reportedly confronted Gehlot on the fact that despite internal surveys suggesting huge anti-incumbency against several MLAs, he went on to give tickets to them, jeopardising party's winning prospects.
The issue of old guard versus new guard in Congress is not new. Even before, people close to Rahul Gandhi have privately accepted that it was the old guard in the party which made him lose the 2019 Lok Sabha polls by not supporting Rahul's campaign against Rafale jet deal with France's Dassault aviation. Even after four years, the issue persists and the grand old party does not seem to have found a way out.
Have clarity on 'winning' issues
Congress secured victories in Himachal Pradesh by promising to reinstate the Old Pension Scheme and in Karnataka by exposing BJP's alleged '40% sarkara' corruption. In Telangana, the party targeted KCR's alleged corruption and ties to the BJP. While Congress' promises had some impact, its failure to highlight similar issues in the Hindi heartland, where it was either the incumbent or a contender, hindered its ability to discredit the BJP.
Issues like the alleged Adani scam and caste-census failed to resonate with voters in the Hindi heartland. Villagers lacking necessities prioritise essentials over issues like Adani amassing wealth. Historically, crony capitalism hasn't been a successful election plank in India. While the caste-census may have garnered additional votes from the SC/ST community, it distanced the upper caste and section of OBC voters aligned with the BJP's Hindutva ideology.
To be or not be, not the way forward
Congress's attempts at soft Hindutva have repeatedly proven ineffective in elections. Balancing between progressive votes and core Hindu voters hasn't yielded success.
The anti-Sanatan remark of Udhayanidhi Stalin, a leader from ally DMK, hurt the Congress in Hindi heartland, say experts. Though it is difficult to gauge exact impact of the comments, the Congress never seemed to have a clear position on the issue, neither endorsing nor outrightly condemning the comments. The Congress' ideological dilemma, in times of Modi's overt Hindutva push, is a one big issue that the party has failed to deal properly in last decade and it still has no answer to it.
Meanwhile, Kamal Nath was observed bowing before Bageshwar Dham's Dhirendra Shastri, a godman known for echoing the BJP's Hindutva ideology. Such gestures not only fail to attract BJP voters to Congress, because the saffron party has established its hegemony on all things Hindu, it also discourages the Congress' secular and liberal credentials. Where does Congress stand ideologically?
Make it local
Wherever the BJP has faced strong local leaders and election focused around local issues, the saffron party has suffered electorally. It would take a politically naive person to not understand this. Moreover, battling the BJP in national elections is markedly more challenging than in assembly polls, because the party fights with the face of Narendra Modi, who continues to remain the most popular leader. To effectively counter the BJP in Lok Sabha polls, the Congress must localise the election in each state. This entails cultivating strong local leaders, prioritising local issues, and engaging in strategic seat-sharing with allies like SP, RJD, Shiv Sena, among others, to optimise chances of victory.
Know your audience
Like PM Modi's 'Amritkal' or 'Vishgwaguru' push, his party predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee ran the 'INDIA SHINING' campaign before 2004 Lok Sabha election. Fueled by party's similar victories in assembly polls of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Vajpayee felt so confident of victory over Sonia Gandhi-led Congress that he called for early elections. The BJP, riding on the'feel good' factor, felt it would sail through easily. The Congress, on the other hand, looked out of touch.
This, however, was not the reality. All the Congress needed to do was to tap into the segment of people who weren't the beneficiaries of 'INDIA SHINING'. Congress ran 'Aam aadmi ko kya mila? (What did common man get?)' campaign. It published ads in regional languages and black & white newspapers, took vox-pops and photos of common people from different parts of the country, who weren't really 'feeling good'. And it worked.
PM Modi's welfare schemes and last mile delivery of services have done miracles for him. To think that people are voting him only based on the Hindutva plank would be a stupidity. These massive mandates are not only a result of polarisation, though it happens to be one of the major factor. The 'Modi beneficiary' is the main section that is hurting the Congress electorally. Does Congress have a plan for it? It doesn't seem to have one. What's Congress' answer to 'Modi's beneficiaries'? Who is Congress' audience? The party needs to deliberate, because the time is running out.