The recent assembly elections offer the Congress its best, and last chance, to build some momentum heading into the 2019 elections. If the Congress is unable to win atleast two major states, it stares at the real prospect of being a totally deflated army heading into the national polls
Defeat in sport can become a habit. In the 1980s, most teams lost to the great West Indian side even before they reached the pitch out of sheer fright. India’s World Cup 1983 winning captain Kapil Dev says that the first time he felt India could win the tournament was when they defeated the Windies in a preliminary game: “Until then, we just didn’t believe we were good enough to beat them at a major one day tournament.”
What is true of cricket is also perhaps the case with the intensely competitive world of politics: defeat almost becomes addictive, sapping self-belief and hope. In the past four years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been a bit like the intimidating West Indian side, only this time it isn’t a quartet of fast bowlers as much as a duo of ruthless practitioners of electoral realpolitik in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who have almost bullied their rivals into a defeatist mindset.
Which is why what happens on counting day next week is so crucial. Till a month ago, the Congress had taken at least victory in Rajasthan for granted: after all, 25 five years of rotating governments would suggest that the inexorable law of anti incumbency, almost by default, would propel the Congress into power in the state. But the last minute carpet bombing of the state by the BJP has left many observers wondering if there will be a sudden switch in fortunes.
And yet, the fact is, these winter elections are perhaps the first time since the debacle of 2014 when the Congress goes into counting day with a sense of genuine optimism. The fact that its leaders have fought with relative unity in Madhya Pradesh has shown that faction management is still possible in a party unit notorious for committing hara-kiri. By contrast, the fact that the party is split down the middle over the chief ministership in Rajasthan, and yet is within striking distance of winning the state, offers a counterpoint to the argument that only a mini presidential style battle in which chief minister candidates are announced in advance works now. In Chattisgarh and Telangana, too, the Congress is in the hunt despite facing formidable regional satraps in Raman Singh and K Chandrashekhar Rao.
So has the Congress really transformed itself into a fighting election machine once again? Not quite. Truth is, the Congress is still far too umbilically tied to its high command culture to allow genuine autonomy to its state leaderships. Note how it prevaricated for months before finally sending Kamal Nath as MP Congress president only seven months ahead of elections, or how the mahakutami (grand alliance) in Telangana was sealed in Delhi just weeks ahead of the polls. Even if the party’s communication outreach and booth management skills have improved, they are still playing catch up with the BJP, a political force which has taken micro level election management to new levels. And while Rahul Gandhi has transformed into an energetic campaigner, he still lacks the emotional connect that appears to come so naturally to Prime Minister Modi. Moreover, in almost all the battleground states, the Congress has to live with the reality of being a party with plenty of leaders but not enough boots on the ground.
If the Congress still has a decent chance of staying in the game, it is primarily because the BJP too is now overdependent on the Modi factor. When elections get localised, then the magic of the charismatic supremo starts to fade and the politics gets entangled in a slew of local contests. So far, the prime minister’s mass appeal has enabled the BJP to punch above its weight even in parts of the country where it was almost non-existent (Tripura being a classic example). But fatigue and arrogance can be a deadly mix, one which leaves the BJP in an increasingly vulnerable position in states where the party’s local leadership does not offer wholesome governance.
Which is why December 2018 offers the Congress its best, and last, chance to build some momentum heading into the 2019 general elections. If the Congress is unable to win at least two major states, it stares at the real prospect of being a totally deflated army heading into the national polls. By contrast, victory could make it a magnet for a broader anti-BJP coalition. It is, in a sense, the Congress’s Kapil Dev moment of 1983, one which will decide whether the mood of defeatism is enduring, or whether the party lives to fight another day.
Post-script: On the campaign trail in Rajasthan, a young Congress leader rather presciently remarked, “My biggest fear is that if we do well on December 11, our party will get so carried away that it will think that it has already won 2019, which will again be a very different election!” Truth is, when the patient is facing a lingering death in the ICU, the slightest sign of improvement is latched upon as evidence of a miraculous recovery.