I have spoken more than once about the existential crisis that the Congress party has been facing since 2014. If the exit polls are to be believed, the grand old party is all set to slip further into the abyss of irrelevance. It is hard to imagine a worse beginning for Rahul Gandhi's reign as party president, should that come to pass.
Himachal Pradesh has had a long history of anti-incumbency, with every election since 1990 leading to a transfer of power between Indian National Congress (INC) and BJP. Considering that background and the controversies that the current Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is currently embroiled in, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the INC to retain power in the hill state.
Per contra, The Gujarat state assembly election presented a golden opportunity for the Congress to effect a revival. Given the Patidar agitation, the agrarian crisis in the state and the inevitable anti-incumbency after two decades of BJP rule, a dip in the ruling party's vote share is but natural. There also was the fact that the BJP has not yet been able to fill the state leadership vacuum created by the exit of Narendra Modi in 2014. If ever there was a golden opportunity for the INC, this was it.
|Political Map of India (15th December 2017)|
Legend: Yellow-BJP, Green- INC, Blue- Others
Truth be told, the Gujarat state elections mean a lot more to the Congress than to the incumbent BJP. The later is in power at the centre and in most states. An electoral loss in Gujarat would definitely be an embarrassment for the Modi-Shah duo but a relatively minor setback, since Gujarat accounts for no more than 5% of the seats in both houses of parliament. The outlook is very different for the INC, whose electoral footprint is currently limited to just five states. A victory in Gujarat can turn the tide.
It would seem right now, that the golden opportunity has been squandered. In fact I'll stick my neck out and state that the BJP will retain Gujarat, albeit with a smaller majority. Despite the electoral alliances and the anti-incumbency factor, the INC was handicapped by a variety of factors. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, the party's campaign was led by Rahul Gandhi, who does not speak Gujarati and whose Hindi is clearly rather limited. Its hard to imagine that he was able to connect with the public in a state where regional pride runs high. On that score, his chief opponent was at an obvious advantage, being a Gujarati and a hugely popular former Chief Minister of that very state to wit.
On a related note, I strongly suspect that Mr. Gandhi's constant criticism of Narendra Modi played into the hands of the ruling party. Mr. Modi is still seen by many as the pride of Gujarat. Whatever grievances the people of Gujarat might have against their government, Rahul Gandhi's repeated baiting was bound to be seen as an affront to regional pride- a theme the Prime Minister repeatedly alluded to during the campaign trail.
|Rahul Gandhi: The Weakest Link|
In fact Mr. Gandhi's leadership was his party's Achilles heel. Irrespective of what was reported in the media, his public utterances (see this press conference for instance) continue to give the impression of a man who makes grandiloquent statements with very little by way of specifics to back them up. If Rahul Gandhi has a clear vision for Gujarat, he certainly failed to articulate it.
Another sign of weakness in the Congress campaign was Mr. Gandhi's temple visits and the proclamation that he is a Shiv Bhakt, which seemed strangely out of sync for the supreme leader of a party that has always worn secularism on its sleeve. It was stranger still, to see the Congress expending so little effort to engage with the Muslim community. One got the impression that the grand old party was reacting to the opposition's strategy, rather than setting the agenda.
Which brings us to perhaps the INC's greatest weakness: the fact that it has not offered anything by way of an alternate vision. Mr. Gandhi continues to speak about freebies or loan waivers. In short, he and his party promise nothing but more of the same, which is precisely why they have lost a succession of elections over the last five years. The party seems unable or unwilling to grasp the fact that the country has changed dramatically since the turn of the century.
I see little chance of Rahul Gandhi & co upsetting the apple cart in Gujarat. My prediction is that the INC's electoral footprint will shrink to just four states. The BJP will retain Gujarat and topple the Congress in Himachal Pradesh.