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Disaster in Gujarat but solace in Himachal: What Congress will take away from assembly polls

While Congress may be used to successive defeats, polls in Gujarat and Himachal came at a time when the party is doing some major organization rejigs under new president Mallikarjun Kharge.

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New Delhi: Congress is set to form the government in Himachal Pradesh, springing a surprise in the Assembly election its first victory in a state in three years. Although its decimation in Gujarat where it has been out of power since 1990 came as a big blow, victory in Himachal has come as a big boost to the party ahead of a crucial year when nine states are going to polls. In at least four of them Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the party is pitted directly against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

While an approximately 56-seat and 14 per cent drop in vote share in Gujarat would worry the party, it can take solace in its possible win in Himachal Pradesh, the first state election the party has won since the winter of 2018.

In both states, the party was the key opponent of incumbent BJP. While it was successful in dislodging the ruling party in the hill state with approximately 40 out of 68 seats (according to latest trends), it was unable to take advantage of various anti-incumbency factors in Gujarat. The Aam Aadmi Party has emerged as its nemesis.

The Congress lost around 14 percent votes down to 27 per cent from 41 per cent in 2017 assembly election. The AAP look set to secure around 13 per cent votes in Gujarat, cutting into the anti-incumbency votes that would have otherwise gone to the Congress. That the AAP did not eat into the BJP votebank is evident from the increase in the BJP’s vote share by about 3 percentage point from 49 per cent in 2017 election.

The Congress has won Himachal without any contribution from Rahul Gandhi who is on his ‘tapasya’ or the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Rahul stayed away from the campaign or party’s election preparations in Himachal, leaving it to his sister Priyanka Vadra. Priyanka was last involved as general secretary in the Uttar Pradesh elections, where even after a high-pitched campaign, the Congress slipped from its already-miserly tally of 7 seats in the state assembly to two.

However, party sources say that unlike in UP where Priyanka, as state in-charge, was involved in all aspects of the campaign from outreach to political strategy, in Himachal, she was more of a “campaign face”. The campaign strategy was largely handled by Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel with Rajiv Shukla as state election in-charge playing a supporting role who was appointed as senior observer for the state, of course, with inputs from the party’s state unit. As per Priyanka’s team, however, she was involved in most things, from conducting the initial survey to ticket distribution.

On the other hand, in what was once again a direct face-off in Narendra Modi’s home turf, Rahul Gandhi failed to shine. The Congress trailed in areas of Dahod, Surat and Rajkot where the Gandhi scion campaigned.

The results of these elections are also crucial because of the nine states that go to polls next year in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections next year. The Congress is the principal opposition in four of these states, namely Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram. In two others, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, it is the ruling party.

The results in Gujarat may also play a role in the future of Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, who along with his confidant Raghu Sharma, were handling affairs for the party in the state. The two are likely to face the heat for what’s Congress’s worst performance in Gujarat.

Gehlot, who was appointed senior observer for the Gujarat elections, is in the middle of a power tussle with party leader Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan. While the power crisis has been temporarily put on pause due to the Bharat Jodo Yatra now going through the state, the high command in Delhi is likely to take a decision on it now that the Gujarat elections are over.

The resignation of the party’s general in-charge for the state, Ajay Maken, after he was ostensibly snubbed by Gehlot loyalists when sent as an observer for a legislature party meeting in the state, has only mounted pressure on the leadership. This week, Punjab leader Sukhjinder Randhawa was brought in as Maken’s replacement. Incidentally, Pilot was also an observer for the Himachal Pradesh elections.

Meanwhile, a victory in Himachal Pradesh would cement Bhupesh Baghel’s position as a low-key “rockstar” in a party where leader after leader has failed to deliver in big assignments. Baghel’s imprint on the party’s campaign in Himachal, where he was sent as senior observer, was visible. From religion-based tourist routes to a variation of his famous ‘gobar economy’ model and a pitch for reinstating the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), the Congress’s manifesto in Himachal promised a lot of things that are already being implemented by the Baghel in Chhattisgarh.

The win in Himachal will likely give Baghel more autonomy to function in Chhattisgarh in the run-up to the elections, especially in party-related matters. Chhattisgarh, as per most Congress functionaries, is one state where the party seems to have kept the BJP under pressure, appropriating its Hindutva plank and taking advantage of a wobbly leadership.

Marking its fifth assembly bypoll victory in Chhattisgarh in the last four years, the Congress won Thursday in Bhanupratappur where its candidate managed a margin of 21,171 votes.

Also read: Time to save Congress is now. Modi knows that, Gandhis don’t

The administrator, the ‘leader’ & the ‘woman face’

At a meeting of the party’s Steering Committee last week, Kharge gave a clear message to party leaders — deliver or make way. Unlike Rahul who’s repeatedly called it the ideological fight as opposed to the electoral fight, Kharge underlined that winning elections is required to serve the people.

He also asked for a detailed roadmap for states that are going to polls in the run up to Lok Sabha 2024. Since he was elected party president in October, Kharge has visited his home state Karnataka three times.

The polls in that state next year are a battle that the nine-time Karnataka MLA is keen to front himself, according to leaders in the party’s Karnataka unit.

At the same time, Kharge has asked all state and regional in-charges to schedule one-on-one meetings with him over the next 30 days to formalise a plan for states going to polls.

At the steering committee meeting, the party also announced a follow-up to the Bharat Jodo Yatra, that will involve mass mobilisation at the block, gram panchayat and district levels. Interestingly, the face of the follow-up ‘Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyaan‘ will again be Rahul Gandhi and not Kharge. According to the draft plan for the Abhiyaan, a letter by Rahul will be handed over to the public in places where these outreach programmes will be conducted.

Similarly, Priyanka has also been given the role of fronting the party’s women’s outreach programme and will be leading ‘Mahila Marches’ in all state capitals.

“The ‘Ladki Hoon Ladd Sakti Hoon’ campaign that Priyanka had helmed in UP may not have produced electoral dividends there because the Congress was not a key player in those elections. But as a concept it was appreciated across the country. In the run-up to 2024, a similar woman-centric campaign may help in drawing the woman voter to the Congress,” said a party functionary who works closely with Gandhi Vadra.

The Gujarat and Himachal results will make this segregation of roles clearer — Kharge the administrator, Rahul the party leader and Priyanka its ‘woman face’.

The 2023 assembly elections

While the party, internally, did not have high hopes from Gujarat, Himachal was one that it was looking to win. “While state elections depend on regional factors, it is important that the party be seen as a viable alternative. Even when the party organisation is strong it becomes difficult to convince the voter that the Congress is a serious contender when it loses election after election,” said a Congress MP.

In states like Himachal, if the Congress cannot win even against a weakened BJP, it ruins the party’s perception everywhere, the MP further said, adding: “It also provides a leverage to regional parties to negotiate harder with the Congress in a state alliance because the perception is that Congress cannot cross the winning mark without help.”

In 4 of the 5 states going to polls next year, Congress is in a direct competition with BJP.  An additional state and subsequent wins in other state elections would also mean a hike in party resources ahead of 2024 against a BJP with money and muscle power.

(Edited by V S Chandrasekar)

Also read: Why Sonia-Rahul’s Congress began its race to the political bottom in 2004 & is now winning it


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