Almost all the critical aspects of the Congress’ offensive were mistimed. Its appreciable manifesto and its core proposal of a basic minimum income for the marginalized arrived late in the day and could not be communicated well to the grassroots by the party. The Congress also had little in the form of organised apparatus and was always dependent on the mass media to do its talking, which the latter was not willing to do in this election, being heavily influenced by those in power. Priyanka Gandhi, having also arrived late in the day, did not help much beyond enthusing the UP Congress cadre. Furthermore, her not contesting or even campaigning in states where Congress had just come to power (MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan) was a crucial mistake. MP strongman Jyotiraditya Scindia being engaged largely in the Western UP campaign due to Kamal Nath’s antagonism towards him was also a poor strategy.
The Congress failed in creating a truly united Opposition challenge to the Modi-Shah duo. The Opposition forces could not forge a collective counter to communal politics and polarisation. Congress floundered badly in forging an alliance in Bengal (with the Left or TMC), Haryana (with JJP and AAP), Delhi (with AAP) and UP (with SP-BSP). The need was for all to combat the BJP unitedly and not restrict each other’s spheres of influence.
The absence of a single face of the Opposition and lack of a coherent national strategy of all anti-BJP forces are telling in the total tally. If the Congress had managed to move away from its sense of entitlement and confused strategy for future organisational interests and forge a united opposition across India, it could have at least tried to make the battle look like it was Modi versus India. But it was neither here nor there. Even in MP and Rajasthan, the BSP should have been part of an alliance with Congress.
Furthermore, leaving the three critical newly won states of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh purely to local satraps and not included in the national strategy of a joint Opposition was a crucial mistake by Rahul Gandhi. Congress did not work to consolidate its strong points and was wobbling to fight in its weaker pockets, except for Kerala. It was sad to see that the internal conflicts within Congress in MP, Rajasthan and Karnataka were for all to witness.
Also, the NYAY campaign was pushed more in urban centres where the middle class was critical of it and not in the hinterland for whose dwellers it was largely meant to be, and the focus on the farm crisis was very limited.
Regional politics has taken a hit and non-Congress Opposition politics will find it tough to survive. The axis of the Opposition will have to revolve around the Congress. And the Grand Old Party needs to align with other stronger Opposition parties, whether it is the BSP and SP in UP, TMC in WB or AAP in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, and strengthen its alliance with the JD(S) in Karnataka or with the DMK in Tamil Nadu or RJD in Bihar or JMM in Jharkhand, apart from building an alliance with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and with BSP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. If secularism, socialism and liberal democracy are common elements of all Opposition parties, then the Congress has to take the lead in bringing all forces together.
The Congress needs a concerted attempt to take its manifesto to the nation in letter and spirit. Let a shadow Cabinet be formed with one strong Congressman shadowing each department of the government and putting a counter to every policy or lack of it. This is already in place in British polity. For example, the shadow agriculture minister Congress could keep hammering the government on farm issues, putting forth the Congress’ stand as well.
Let the Congress bring its entire youth brigade to the front to rebuild the party with a new energy and making the Indian Constitution and the current party manifesto as their cornerstones. Congress has to put out a strong alternative narrative to the Sanghi narrative, advocating development with inclusivity and socio-economic justice and upholding liberal values. However, it’s a tall order for the Congress of today.
The author Prof Ujjwal K. Chowdhury is a noted media academic and columnist...