The performance of Owaisi’s party should ring a warning bell at 24 Akbar Road. It seems as if the minorities are losing faith in the Congress.


New Delhi: While the exit polls got the results all wrong, they did get one thing right. The narrative of the Bihar election was focused more on jobs and development than it was on the old caste and religion markers. In fact, when NewsX reporters spoke to voters during the campaign, they admitted as much. The only answer varied as to who they thought was best placed to deliver on this development agenda: the answers usually varied between the Prime Minister and Tejashwi Yadav. The PM too was quick to nab onto this narrative and soon abandoned all talk of Article 370 and CAA. Instead, what caught his eye was a video of an old lady that went viral. When asked why she would vote for Modi, she replied: “Modi hamara ke nal dehle; kota dehlan, rashan dehlan, latrine dehlan, gas dehlan (Modi has given me water, house, ration, latrine gas). Hunka ke bhotka deb tohra ke deb (instead of voting for him should I vote for you)?” In fact it does seem as if the PM’s credibility remains intact despite the Covid mishandling, which is being blamed on the state government. Most voters claimed that they had faith in Modi, but it was the bureaucrats that messed up. The PM’s credibility remains the Congress party’s biggest challenge for there is little denying that Rahul Gandhi has raised some very pertinent issues when he talks about both China and the economy. The tragedy is that few seemed to have bought into this narrative—what do you say about a leader who has the right instincts but lacks the credibility to convince others?

This is just one of the takeaways from the Bihar elections. Speaking to Congress leaders, they complain that they were not given winnable seats by the RJD. As a state leader told me, “Initially, we had asked for 90 seats, finally we settled for 70. But that was our mistake in going for quantity. Instead we should have settled for fewer seats, say 40, but more winnable seats.”

To be fair to the Congress, at the time of negotiations, the RJD itself was in disarray, with the old guard questioning Tejashwi’s credentials. Tejashwi himself had done little to inspire the party faithful during the lockdown, for he was as much missing during the migrants’ crisis as was the Chief Minister. Yet, once the campaign picked up, Tejashwi surprised everyone and much of this has to do with the new age campaign he ran, focusing on issues that hit a chord with the youth in the state. It was because of him that even the BJP changed its narrative mid-way and brought back jobs and economy in their campaign talk.

In fact, if you look at the RJDs strike rate from the 2015 elections to the current one, it has not done as well this time as much as is being hyped. As pointed out by Shivam Vij in the Print, “The RJD had won 80 of the 100 seats it had contested in the 2015 assembly election, when it was in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). This time, it won 75 of 144. It is the RJD that won 15 less seats than it expected. The responsibility for the Mahagathbandhan’s loss has to be taken ultimately by the senior partner that led the alliance, namely the RJD, and its face Tejashwi Yadav.

The RJD has actually reduced its tally of seats and worsened its strike rate. These numbers don’t lie: there was no Tejashwi wave.” He has a point. But that is still not an adequate alibi for the Congress party’s poor ratings. Just as the Congress, another national party was in alliance with a regional party. But instead of dragging down its alliance, it was the BJP that shored the numbers in the NDA, notching more seats than its regional ally. And don’t forget this was an election fought against the backdrop of a global pandemic and an economic recession. Yet it is the BJP that did its ally proud and the Congress that was the Achilles’ heel.

What should the Congress do now? It should take note of the other bypoll results as well, including those in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and even Telangana. The BJP is particularly chuffed at the Telangana seat, for it has contested against a ruling party and won in a state where it is yet to make inroads. As for Madhya Pradesh, ex CM Kamal Nath fought a lonely battle against Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Even his best friend Digvijaya Singh was missing from the MP Congress campaign. That apart, Scindia proved to be a far more effective campaigner from the BJP dais than he was from the Congress, winning 10 of the 16 seats from the Gwalior-Chambal area. A Cabinet berth is definitely coming his way, while Nath may be staring at a long cooling-off period. It is highly unlikely that the Congress will prop him up as a CM candidate in the state again. His best bet is to look for a soft landing at the party headquarters.

The performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s party should also ring a warning bell at 24 Akbar Road. The AIMIM won 5 of the 6 seats it contested. It seems as if the minorities are losing faith in the Congress, preferring a regional Third Front with a marginal presence in the state, to the Congress, to safeguard its interests. The party is paying a price for its double talk on the CAA and Article 370. The Congress needs to get both its leadership and ideology sorted before the next round of elections. Perhaps it should take another look at the letter sent by the G23?

Next year West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu are slated to go to the polls. The Congress has the best chance in Assam where it is hoping that the anti-CAA vote would help propel it to power. But the party lacks a CM face, for it is still undecided as to whether to project Tarun Gogoi or go in for a regime face. That the 84-year-old Gogoi still remains its best bet is a telling comment on the lack of a second rung of leadership within the state.

But what should be equally worrying for the Congress is how it will be seen by its allies. After the 2017 UP state elections, Akhilesh Yadav blamed the Congress for the SP’s bad performance and rued the fact that he had given 105 seats to the party.

SP leaders told me how the Congress had no presence on the ground, but it was filled with leaders from Delhi who flew in to attend rallies and checked into five-star hotels. Piggybacking on a regional ally is no longer going to serve the Congress which may soon regard the Grand Old Party as a Grand Old Liability.

Already RJD leaders are complaining that it was the Congress that was the weak link in the Mahagathbandhan, with even the Left delivering a better seat conversion rate. What if Stalin (DMK) does a rethink on the Congress party’s winnability as an ally in Tamil Nadu? Mamata Banerjee has already made her contempt clear.

Some leaders close to Rahul are complaining that it was the old guard that made a mess of the seat bargaining, but I do think that ship has sailed. For how long can Team Rahul complain that its leader’s hands are tied by the old guard? Sonia Gandhi has made it amply clear that she wants to step back, why is Rahul not stepping forward?

It has been over 15 years since Rahul made his political debut. He really needs to figure out the answer to that question—preferably before Congress leaders deliver another letter to 10 Janpath.