It has to be seen whether the Congress and the Janata Dal(S) will manage to ultimately deny the Bharatiya Janata Party yet another chance to rule Karnataka. Beyond this fact, the Karnataka Assembly election results have been of little relief to the Congress. It has neither provided it the opportunity to create a new narrative nor given a victory to its president, Rahul Gandhi, that he could cite it as a shining example of his leadership qualities.
Battled hard Rahul certainly did, hotfooting around the state for over two months, unmindful that a poor performance in the last big Congress redoubt could boomerang on him. Either he badly misread Karnataka or believed his spearheading the campaign could galvanise Congress workers. It testifies he has a stout heart. But this cannot erase a glaring fact – the Congress under Rahul's command has yet to win a big state, obviously, not counting Punjab, which sends just 13 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Karnataka has also shown that Rahul is no match to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is credited to have turned around the BJP’s fortune through the 21 rallies he addressed in the last 10 days before the state went to polls. Modi has no reason to fear Rahul, as the latter claimed in Karnataka. A leader on a losing spree can hardly stake claim to being the alternative to Modi in 2019. Karnataka has eroded Rahul's prestige in the Congress and outside it.
Rahul will now have to wait until December to burnish his record. In that month, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will have their Assembly elections. The BJP faces anti-incumbency in the three states. Their conquest, on paper, should be easy for the Congress. Yet Karnataka must have shattered the self-belief of Congress workers and dispirited them. If the Congress fails to win two of the three states in December, Rahul will find hard to invent a narrative that can win his party a substantial number of seats in 2019.
Rahul will have to do a reality-check – his party may have features of a national party, but its capacity to win elections has been diminished. The Congress needs to redefine a target that is reasonable to achieve. To do so, Rahul will need to keep three things in mind – it will have to improve its tally at the BJP’s expense in those states where the two national parties are in direct competition; it has to hope that regional parties beat back the BJP in states where the Congress is mostly a has been; its toughest task is to think of a strategy it should pursue in states where its principal challenger is a regional outfit, which may, to survive, turn to the BJP for help.
This means the Congress will have to concentrate its energy on lowering the BJP’s tally in states where there is bipolarity. In 2014, the BJP won all of 25 seats in Rajasthan, all of 26 seats in Gujarat, 27 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 10 out of 11 seats in Chhattisgarh, all four in Himachal Pradesh, and all five in Uttarakhand. In all these states, the BJP can slide, not improve any further. This strategy he should also pursue wherever his party is a senior partner in an alliance – for instance, Kerala (20 seats) and Maharashtra (48).
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP and its allies won 73 seats. Rahul will have to accept that the Congress has been reduced to irrelevance in the state. He must not succumb to the pressure from Congress workers and field candidates in each of the state’s 80 seats. This is because there is an emerging alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which will be powerful enough to substantially reduce the BJP’s tally of 2014. If the Congress is accepted in the alliance, it should take whatever it gets without making much fuss.
This behaviour is also required of the Congress in Bihar, where the BJP and its allies won 31 seats in 2014. It may prick Rahul's pride that he has to accept the terms set by Lalu Prasad Yadav, of whom he was not particularly enamoured till 2014. Indeed, Rahul must also think of inviting Jaganmohan Reddy to merge his YSR Congress Party with the Congress. On the death of Andhra Pradesh chief minister, YSR Reddy, his son Jaganmohan believed he had the right to succeed him. Dynastic succession is considered normal in the Congress. However, the party high command (read the Gandhis) asserted its right to choose the chief minister.
Jaganmohan's exit from the Congress cost it dearly in Andhra Pradesh. In 2004, Andhra Pradesh had sent 32 MPs to the Lok Sabha; in 2009, it sent 33, a significant factor why the Congress was able to lead a coalition government at the Centre for two terms in succession. It was reduced to just two in 2014 in undivided Andhra Pradesh. It makes electoral sense for Rahul to set aside his prestige to serenade Jaganmohan. If the BJP can take back BS Yeddyurappa, what prevents the Congress from wooing Jaganmohan? Is it because of the hubris born out dynasticism?
Hubris is what will Rahul will have to overcome in tricky states such as Odisha (21 seats), West Bengal (42) and Delhi (7). In all these three states, regional parties are in power and the Congress occupies the third slot. Does it make sense for Rahul to target Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Arvind Kejriwal in the hope of marginally increasing the tally of the Congress, in the process letting the BJP to gain seats?
These tactics imply that Rahul will have to accept that his party does not have a national footprint any longer, and that its support base is perhaps less durable than that of regional outfits. Another five-year term for Modi and the BJP and it might even become tougher for Rahul to resuscitate the Congress. That is why Rahul's principal goal should not be to win the 2019 elections, but to ensure that the BJP is pushed as far away from the majority-mark of 272 as possible.
Karnataka has also vividly demonstrated that visiting temples and mutts, and snide remarks against Modi do not necessarily get much purchase. It is understandable for Rahul to harp on his Hindu identity for countering the BJP’s charge that the Congress is a pro-Muslim party. But he has yet to engage with the Hindus as to why sections of them are paranoid about their identity being threatened, or why they feel Muslims are appeased even though they lag behind most social groups. Perhaps Rahul presumes that his Hindu audience will misunderstand him.
Rahul's own version of Hinduism is largely Brahminical. For instance, how many temples belonging to lower castes has Rahul visited over the last one year? The battle within Hinduism is a battle for cultural and political supremacy between the upper castes and lower castes. From this perspective, Rahul has not provided a Hindu agenda remarkably different from the BJP’s.
Rahul will have to search deep inside him to figure out where he believes in and what his party’s position should be. He is reactive; he has to have his own persona; his own style. He has taken to imitating Modi’s belligerence. Rahul's aggression appears artificial and unconvincing. He should remember that the tortoise won the race against the hare because it ran like tortoise, not hare.