Rahul Gandhi addresses supporters after taking over as Congress leader  in December last year. Photo: Reuters
Rahul Gandhi addresses supporters after taking over as Congress leader in December last year. Photo: Reuters

Narendra Modi’s hopes of winning a second term in office have become a whole lot harder now that the Indian National Congress has captured  the three key Hindi belt states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also failed to secure two other states, Telangana and Mizoram, losing both polls to local parties.

Now some are questioning whether it can keep hold of the crucial state  of Uttar Pradesh, which took Modi to power in the 2014 general election.  The state sends the biggest number of representatives to parliament and is crucial to BJP’s prospects in next year’s national elections.

That victory was achieved on the political clout of the prime minister, who emerged as a charismatic leader and an orator with a clear vision for development and meeting aspirations of Indian youth in 2014. Under Modi, the BJP secured a majority in national elections for the first time.

Four and a half years down the line, his pro-development image has been dented considerably and critics say it no longer appeals to his supporters.

“The job crunch, loss of small and medium businesses post-demonetization, depreciation of the rupee and inflation are affecting them as never before. No amount of spin, excuses and religious balm can relieve their pain,” said political analyst Ramesh Dixit.

Rahul may be the key weapon

In contrast, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress, comes across to voters as a decent politician. He remained humble even after his party’s electoral success in the Hindi states, which coincided with the first anniversary of his elevation to the party leadership. Gandhi may have one other advantage: he is much younger than Modi.

It has been a good year for Congress, with the party performing well in the Gujarat election — though it failed to secure a majority — and in Karnataka, where it joined hands with Janta Dal (Secular) in a bid to keep the Hindu nationalist BJP out of power.

What makes it all the more impressive, is that Congress is succeeding without the enormous resources of the BJP, which has the biggest membership of any party and the greatest access to funding.

Rahul’s consistent focus on issues that highlight the people’s suffering, his targeting of the BJP’s policies and ideology and direct attacks on the prime minister — such as the row over the purchase of Rafale combat jets — and resulting electoral successes have revived the ailing grand old party. This has helped Rahul redefine his image as Congress chief and expanded its support base among communities that had backed the BJP.

“The anti-BJP momentum will continue till the federal polls in 2019 due to the failure of the Modi government on many fronts,” said Sunil Singh Yadav, a Samajwadi Party (SP) legislator. “Besides their lies, their unkept promises, attempts to communalize society and support of violence in the name of [protecting] the cow have frustrated people. They will dethrone the BJP from the center.”

Modi has failed to respond to the escalating number of attacks on Muslims over their alleged consumption of beef: cows are sacred for Hindus and many states have laws prohibiting their slaughter.

BJP’s woes will help regional parties

Even BJP insiders say that the party will lose two-thirds of its seats in Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial state, because of poor governance and its failure to keep electoral promises. They expect a backlash at both the state and federal levels, possibly threatening Modi’s job.

“There are already murmurs that a poor showing by the BJP may prompt it to choose a prime minister other than Modi to attract the required number of coalition partners,” said Anil Tiwari, a political commentator.

Political analyst Hemant Tiwari added: “Uttar Pradesh will pose the biggest threat to the BJP. Congress is set to capitalize on the anti-BJP sentiments. However, the major beneficiaries of people’s anger will be the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).”

BJP and its allies won 73 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, in the 2014 general elections. BJP itself captured 42.3% of the total vote; the SP took five of the remaining seats. BSP did not win a seat, but polled strongly with voters.

Congress won just two Uttar Pradesh constituencies in the 2104 poll — Amethi and Raibareilly — resulting in its worst-ever national tally of 44 seats. The party’s share of the vote in this state was merely 7%.

The Congress base shrank again to 6.3% of votes in the 2017 state assembly polls and its alliance with the incumbent SP failed; BJP’s Ajay Singh Bisht became the chief minister. Earlier this year, Congress  candidates lost their deposits in by-elections for the Lok Sabha (lower house) seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Grand alliance difficult to manage

Its success in the Hindi belt polls, where the party won 40% of the vote,  could energize Congress in Uttar Pradesh. However, it lacks grassroot workers and prominent leaders like Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh and Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan.

“Congress has gradually lost its minority and Dalit voter base to SP and BSP. With Rahul’s consistent attack on BJP-RSS’ (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) divisive politics, a big chunk of these voters might switch back to Congress,” said BSP leader Sunil Shukla. “This will help the party to win 10-15 seats in UP [Uttar Pradesh]. However, it will remain behind SP and BSP in 2019.”

Another challenge for the Congress will be how to get opposition parties  to cooperate in defeating BJP in 2019. It is simple arithmetic that a united pan-India alliance could create trouble for Modi’s re-election bid.

The situation is quite different in Uttar Pradesh, where Congress barely exists. Party insiders say Congress fears its alliance with SP-BSP will only help those parties to grow in the state, while sidelining the Congress even further.

As of two months ago, the two regional giants were offering the Congress 10-12 seats out of 80, but Congress, with its recent victories, is likely to agree to play second fiddle. It hasn’t put out any feelers to them, despite  their support for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

“Congress has never allied with anyone for Lok Sabha polls. Our alliance with SP for 2017 Assembly elections was rejected by the people,” said  Congress leader Anshu Awasthi. “We are weighing the pros and cons and a decision in this regard will be taken by the central leadership soon.”

Congress trying to make up ground

Meanwhile, Congress is trying to do something about its low profile in Uttar Pradesh with a lot of groundwork that focuses on youth, professionals, farmers and women.

“The candidates list is being finalized with feedback from cadres and local leaders. Internal work on all 80 seats is in full swing,” said Anshu Awasthi. “For booth management, 20 youth per booth are being trained.

“The manifesto is being prepared with consultation from common people and is likely to include promises of farm loan waivers, [more] employment, a 33% reservation for women in assemblies and parliament and a pension scheme for journalists.”

Congress is also relying on the performances of Modi and state chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. “People of MP [Madhya Pradesh],  Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have rejected the lies and arrogance of PM Modi and communal politics of CM Yogi,” said senior leader Virendra Madan. “UP voters will also teach BJP a lesson in the general elections.”

But BJP leader Harish Srivastava cautioned against reading too much from the state defeats. “Our loss in three states doesn’t mean that Congress’ popularity is on the rise. The chance of Congress’ revival in UP is bleak, as people have rejected them long back,” he said.

“We lost Chhattisgarh due to Congress’ subtle assurances to naxals [communists]. In Madhya Pradesh, the contest was close and the victory margin was in double digits in many places,” he said. “In Rajasthan, no party has got a second term since 1980.”

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