New Delhi: Sunday’s Assembly election outcome would determine the future direction of politics in the country, especially for the Congress, which is gasping for breath, with one state after the other slipping from its hold. The results would not alter the primary position the Gandhis have in the grand old party, but they would certainly acquire a defensive stand, which would make them susceptible to seeing the reality as it exists.
Before the poll process had begun, the Congress was hoping with its allies to capture power in Kerala, which has a history of returning alternate governments every five years. However, exit polls indicate that the Left Democratic Front was poised to retain its government, notwithstanding the assertion of former Chief Minister, A.K. Antony that his party was going to gain control once again.
The Congress is piggybacking on the DMK in Tamil Nadu and if the Dravidian party is able to displace its main rival, the AIADMK, it would be solely due to the efforts of M.K. Stalin, who is favoured to be the next Chief Minister. Pondicherry is virtually gone from the Congress grip, something that became evident when the former Chief Minister, V. Narayanasamy was denied the party ticket to contest.
The fact of the matter is that if the Congress does not win Kerala, its influence in the Southern region would stand significantly diminished. It has very little presence in Andhra and Telangana, and in Karnataka, it is in the Opposition. Even during the end of Emergency when the entire North India had virtually voted out the Congress, undivided Andhra and Karnataka stood with Indira Gandhi. Therefore, it would be a matter of great worry for the current leadership to sustain its clout once the South, like most of the North earlier, slips out of the Congress hands. The only redeeming factor is that the young leadership of the party as represented by B.V. Srinivas, the dynamic president of the Indian Youth Congress is working very hard to revive the organization.
The Congress was hoping to win Assam, but it appears that the northeastern state is once again going the BJP way. Problem for BJP could mount if they, after securing victory, overlook the claim of Himanta Biswa Sarma for Chief Ministership, which he would rightly deserve. Sarma, a former Congressman, was being wooed to return to the parent party by Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser, Ahmed Patel, before, he succumbed to Covid last year.
The larger question that emerges is whether Rahul Gandhi, despite the possible reverses, will reconsider his decision of stepping down from the presidentship of the party, and once again opt to take up that position. As things stand today, if he wishes to be the president again, nothing would stop him, even though his writ would not run as much as it did during his earlier stint.
Therefore, it is unlikely that Rahul would be in the fray and may instead opt for a nominee he considers close to his family. There is a possibility that the Congress could project somebody like former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, who, incidentally, completed three years as the state party chief on Saturday, as the Congress president. He has the resources and can run the party smoothly, at least for his full term. Then there is Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan Chief Minister, who has ample experience to carry the organization forward. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the former Haryana CM, is a mass leader and a crafty politician, who, if given an opportunity, can help in reviving the party.
There has been talk of a possible split in the Congress after the poll results come out, with what is left of the G-23 challenging the leadership. Those who are well acquainted with Congress politics would consider this division self-destructive for those who engineer it, since it would help Rahul Gandhi to become the undisputed leader of the grand old party with the splinter group disintegrating sooner than later.
For the Gandhis, it is a twin dilemma. First how to keep the party intact under their own stewardship and secondly, to ensure that the leadership of the Opposition parties does not slip away from their hands into those of some other leader, who is mutually more acceptable to others. The second problem is more serious and if Mamata Banerjee manages to win Bengal, she would be the undisputed leader from among parties which are opposed to the BJP.
The stakes for the Congress in these Assembly elections are much greater than those of the BJP. The BJP may win Assam and could possibly improve its position in Bengal, but it would be politically content if the Congress, the only party to challenge it on the national stage, shrinks further. Sunday would be a day of reckoning in Indian politics since it would also indicate what awaits the Congress in the future despite worldwide criticism of the BJP and its handling of the Covid crisis. The Congress may be on the ventilator if things do not turn out well for it.