Rahul Gandhi addresses a gathering in Hyderabad, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Why The Semifinal To 2019 Is The Congress’ To Lose

BloombergQuintOpinion

The results of elections in five states will be announced on Dec. 11. The states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Mizoram will be electing new governments in a round of elections that is widely seen as a semifinal of sorts to the next general election in 2019. In three of the five states, the contest is a heads-up between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress. This is also why the results will be viewed as a gauge of how people feel about the BJP and the Modi government at the centre. For a beleaguered Congress, reduced to just 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, it is an opportunity to assert the party’s continuing relevance in Indian politics. A win in even two of the five states going to polls would be touted as a resurgence for the Grand Old Party.

But a closer look at the five states would show that the standards for the Congress ought to be higher. In each of the five, the Congress is facing the best possible chance it has had in recent times to win back power, and the results should be read in that context.

Being second-best, or ‘nearly there’ won’t fly anymore.

Madhya Pradesh

The 230-seat Madhya Pradesh Assembly has been dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the last three terms. The incumbent, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is one of the most popular leaders in the state and has held the top post since 2005. But as we saw recently in Tripura, a three-term CM, despite his popularity, does face anti-incumbency. The Congress has had the opportunity to tap into widespread farmer distress in the largely rural economy of Madhya Pradesh, and a clamor for employment opportunities outside of agriculture.

Rahul Gandhi flanked by Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, in Ujjain, on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Rahul Gandhi flanked by Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, in Ujjain, on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Madhya Pradesh Assembly Elections: All You Need To Know

The Congress high-command has also kept a tight leash on warring factions of the party's state leadership. Digvijaya Singh, the most recent Congress chief minister from Madhya Pradesh, has been kept on the sidelines in this campaign, and he admitted that the BJP had been successful in seeking votes by criticising his 1993-2003 tenure.

Many see this as the best possible chance for the Congress to regain power in Madhya Pradesh.

Chhattisgarh

Here too, the Congress is up against a three-term government and a popular chief minister. The Congress has also lost a number of key leaders over the last six years, due to expulsions, as well as fatalities in naxal violence. But, like Madhya Pradesh, a three-term government in the midst of a nationwide rural distress and clamor for permanent jobs presents the Congress its best case-scenario.

The one unknown factor is the alliance between former Congress stalwart Ajit Jogi’s ‘Janta Congress Chhattisgarh’ and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. While Mayawati’s BSP clocked a 4.27 percent vote share in the last assembly election, former Chief Minister Jogi’s party is untested.

Importantly, the difference in the vote share between the BJP and the Congress has remained narrow, across the last three elections.

It is also not clear who the BSP-JCC combine would harm more. Ajit Jogi has been taking on both parties while campaigning but has been at pains to explain that he holds no personal grudge against the Gandhi family.

Also read: We Are Harming Both BJP, Congress Equally, Says Ajit Jogi

Rajasthan

The state has not repeated a government in the last 20 years. Rajasthan’s ‘revolving door policy’ has given the Congress campaign hope. Quelling infighting between prominent state leaders has been a challenge. While here too, the Congress has not chosen to name a chief ministerial candidate, it is widely believed that the choice—in the event of a win—would narrow down to former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the Congress’ Rajasthan chief Sachin Pilot.

Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot at a rally in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, on Sep. 20, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot at a rally in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, on Sep. 20, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Congress Within Striking Distance Of Power In Rajasthan, Says Sachin Pilot

Rebel candidates do threaten to play spoilsport for the Congress but the BJP is facing a similar issue as well.

Eventually, it would come down to which side managed rebel candidates better.

Telangana

The state of Telangana will face an assembly election for the first time. An undivided Andhra Pradesh voted in 2014, and seats were divided into the two new states. In this division, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi came out on top with 63 seats in a 119 seat Telangana assembly. Over the last four years, the TRS managed to boost its strength in the assembly to 90 with ‘acquisitions’ from different parties before Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao called for early elections in September.

This time, the Congress has allied with long-time rival Chandrababu Naidu and his Telugu Desam Party, and roped in a couple of smaller regional parties as well. For the TRS, this combined opposition is the top threat.

The four-party ‘Mahakutami’ out-polled the TRS in 2014.
 Rahul Gandhi with N Chandrababu Naidu in New Delhi, on Nov. 1, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Rahul Gandhi with N Chandrababu Naidu in New Delhi, on Nov. 1, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Telangana Polls 2018: Will KCR Overcome Alliance Arithmetic?

These numbers give the Congress a good opportunity to reclaim a region that it swept in 2004 and 2009. Over time, K Chandrasekhar Rao’s identity as the politician who fought for a separate state, may have waned. The state has been formed and now voters will give their verdict on the chief minister’s performance.

Mizoram

The Congress and the Mizo National Front are the two dominant parties in the state of Mizoram. One of these two parties has been in power since 1986. The Congress occupied the treasury benches for the last 10 years and current Chief Minister Lal Thanhawala could be at the receiving end of anti-incumbency. While the Mizo National Front and the BJP are allies at the Centre, the MNF has declared that it is fighting alone in this election, and the BJP has fielded 39 of its own candidates in the 40-seat assembly.

Other key players include the Zoram People’s Movement, and the National People’s Party led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.

The presence of a number of regional parties, and the BJP, all contesting separately, could end up fragmenting the anti-Congress vote, giving the party a fighting chance.
Conrad Sangma during an election rally in support of party candidates ahead of Mizoram Assembly elections in Kolasib, Mizoram, on Nov. 21 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Conrad Sangma during an election rally in support of party candidates ahead of Mizoram Assembly elections in Kolasib, Mizoram, on Nov. 21 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

The factors disrupting the possibility of a Congress win across all the states are mostly of its own creation. Infighting among party leaders and rebel candidates who could skew the pitch. They leave the door open for the BJP to play its trump card – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sway over voters.

Tamanna Inamdar is Senior Editor at BloombergQuint.