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Indian elections: Is this the Return of the Congress?

Since its devastating loss in the 2014 Indian General Elections, the Indian National Congress (INC) has faltered and ceded ground to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the state and national level. 2014 saw the worst showing for the INC in a General Election.

This was fueled three factors. The first was by a large wave of anti-incumbency sentiment following its 10-year term at the helm of the country as the leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The second was its inability to present a lasting and coherent vision for the country and lack of strong and charismatic leadership. The final major factor was the charisma of the BJPs prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi and his message of “development”.

So severe was the Congress’s defeat that they did not win enough seats to even form the opposition party at the national level. Since then a string of misfortunes have led to nineteen states in the country to be ruled by the BJP on its own or in alliance.

Even though the INC was not able to win the recent elections in the state of Gujarat, there was a lot of positives that came out of it.  In the state ruled by the BJP for the past 22 years and home of the BJP’s two leading figures Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. the INC increased in its vote share and number of seats won from the previous state elections in 2012; and delivering it’s best showing in 30 years.  This revival has curtailed the BJP majority in the state to 99 seats; less than what exit polls predicted and less significantly less than the 150-seat target it set for itself.

2012 2017
Party name No. of Seats Voter Share No. of Seats Voter Share
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 115 47.85% 99 49.10 %
Indian National Congress (INC) 61 38.93% 77 41.4%

Performance of the BJP and INC in the 2012 and 2017 Gujarat State Elections

The Gujarat elections also showed that the party may be regaining its ability to attract allies. With significant backing from Hardik Patel, a Patidar leader, the Congress is showing that it is still a potent force in Indian politics especially following the debacle in Bihar earlier this year with its ‘Grand Alliance’ against the BJP failing; only to see Nitesh Kumar joining hands with the BJP. In a parliamentary system of government where coalition governments are a norm, this is essential.

The INC also finally has new leadership with some bite. There is a lot to say about Rahul Gandhi as a politician and being the latest scion of dynastic rule in the INC, but atleast there is someone formally at the helm of affairs to help steer the ship. Gandhi has also shown his potency with renewed vigour in the political and social media sphere. His efforts in Gujarat have been praised significantly.

The nature of Indian politics dictates that to study the fortune of the INC we must also address the BJP. Despite it’s (expected) win in Gujarat, it has lost seats since 2012 and fallen short of the targets it set for itself. Even a few months ago, the BJPs invincibility was taken as a given. However, with the resurgence of caste politics, missteps at the national level failure to deliver at the state level, the party had to once again, rely on Prime Minister Modi campaign in the state delivering speeches at over 30 rallies. More significantly, the BJP has now been in power at the national level for three and a half years with little to show in terms of “development” it promised and significant rise in communal tensions across the country which could make itself susceptible to anti-incumbency sentiments.

With new leadership (and hopefully, a soon-to-come coherent and articulate vision), the INC may once again prove its potency at the national-level and begin to regain allies. With eight state elections slated for 2018, there is a lot to play for. These include Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, three states where acts of physical violence against Christians is the most severe. While I believe that it will still be very difficult to dislodge Prime Minister Modi in 2019, my sense is that, much like in Gujarat, a BJP win doesn’t necessarily mean a loss for the Indian National Congress.

Image Credit: CC by Rahul Gandhi/ Wikimedia Commons