The three most important takeaways of the Congress Party's victory in assembly elections in the heartland states of India are: (1) it has suddenly opened up the race for power in the parliamentary polls due in the first quarter of the New Year; (2) it has dramatically altered the political equation between the Congress and its regional allies; and (3) most significantly, the coming of age of Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, as a politician and the helmsman of the 133-year-old party.
The Congress' wins in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan meant the heaviest defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP in the last four years. Not that the Congress has not won assembly elections on its own in the past—it has done so in Punjab, Karnataka and Goa (the party emerged as the largest party in the elections). But what the results of the polls in the heartland states have done is breach the aura of invincibility built up by the BJP's victory in a series of state-level elections across India, the most important being the remarkable triumph in Uttar Pradesh, since Modi became PM in May 2014.
The significance of the message from the results in the three heartland states lies in the fact that they together accounted for a total of 65 parliamentary seats. In 2014, the Congress could manage to win just three of those, yielding 62 to the BJP that led the latter to come to power in India. But if the voters' mood as reflected in the latest assembly elections continues in the coming parliamentary polls, the BJP risks losing at least 31 of the 65 seats.
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are the states where the Congress and the BJP are in a direct contest against each other. Add to this another seven states where the same scenario applies—Assam, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Goa and Delhi. A total of 133 parliamentary seats will be at stake in these ten states taken together. The BJP is in power in six of these seven states and so the party will have to cope with double anti-incumbency (as the party is also in power at the Centre) in next year's parliamentary polls. This, coupled with the Congress' victory in the three heartland states, could fire up the 2019 race for parliament and make it much more closely-fought than anticipated so far.
Tuesday's results will also consolidate Rahul Gandhi's bargaining power in trying to forge a pan-India anti-BJP alliance with regional parties with the Congress as its anchor and mount the most serious challenge to Modi. The win in the three states will enhance 48-year-old Rahul Gandhi's image as the credible, main leader of an anti-BJP front in dealing with the more experienced, firebrand and ambitious politicians of regional parties like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Sharad Pawar, and some others who are not known to be comfortable with a man much junior to them. An immediate effect is already visible. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which had refused to align with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly polls, has promptly extended support to the Congress' bid for government formation in Madhya Pradesh where the Rahul Gandhi-led party fell short of simple majority by two seats.
The victory for Rahul Gandhi could not have come at a better time: just five days ahead of the first anniversary of his anointment as the President of the Congress as he took over the mantle from his Italy-born mother Sonia Gandhi on December 16, 2017. The recent polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan were a crucial test for the leadership qualities of Rahul Gandhi who has frequently been subjected to jibes by his critics, including the BJP, as a “pappu” (a greenhorn) in politics. Not so anymore as the emphatic wins in the three states have undoubtedly cemented his position as the top leader of India's oldest party to take on the BJP in a straight contest in the coming parliamentary polls.
Mind you, Rahul Gandhi had taken over the Congress leadership at the most critical juncture of the party which was at its nadir after being consigned to its worst performance in the general election in 2014 and defeats in a series of elections in states thereafter. The party's pan-India presence shrunk considerably. Such was the plight of the party that serious questions were raised about its ability to bounce back and stave off the challenges of a more resourceful, combative and the killer instinct of the BJP's ruthless election apparatus. So the wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are a watershed moment in the beginning of the Rahul era in the Congress. What was particularly creditable for him is the manner in which he fronted the campaign in Chhattisgarh where almost the entire top brass of the state Congress was annihilated in a deadly ambush by Maoists a few years ago and the party did not even have a prominent chief ministerial face in sharp contrast to the saffron party's Raman Singh, Chief Minister for the last 15 years.
In the last few months, Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in tapping into the widespread resentment over the farming sector crisis festering for more than four years, lack of jobs for the youth, and the Modi government's shock demonetisation (scrapping of high-value currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500) in November 2016 that badly hit industries, especially the medium and small enterprises. What added to the woes of the industries was the introduction of a nationwide uniform goods and services tax (GST). Rahul Gandhi made these issues the party's key planks. He spiced up the planks by mounting an attack on the BJP on the issues of corruption and crony capitalism in connection with India's Rs 36,000-crore deal with France to buy Rafale fighter planes. He repeatedly brought Modi into his firing line in this context. But his sustained campaign on the Rafale deal, along with the Supreme Court dealing with it on petitions, created a popular perception that there is something amiss in the deal. Perceptions may not always be right but it matters in electoral politics.
Rahul Gandhi's coming of age as a politician is also visible in the fact that either he or his party steadfastly refused to respond to the BJP's frequent use of polarising narratives on the issues of “illegal” migrants in Assam, Ram temple in Ayodhya and changing of Islamic names of places. The Congress assessment is that biting the bait of polarising issues would only help the BJP in the consolidation of Hindu votes. Rahul Gandhi's restraint in dealing with his rivals at a news conference when the election results were announced on Tuesday was commendable. In sharp contrast to the BJP's frequent calls for a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (an India free from Congress), Rahul said he envisioned an India not to be “mukt” of anyone, including the BJP.
The biggest challenge for Rahul Gandhi is to sustain the momentum generated by the assembly polls in the three states till the battle for parliament and wait for his party's “achche din” (good days).
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.