There are several messages that have emanated from the outcome of the bypolls, the most significant being that the pressure on the Gandhis to step aside from the leadership role of the Congress has eased a bit. This also implies that the other opposition parties that had been aiming to displace the Congress in some of the poll bound states, may have to rework their strategy for the future.
The strengthening of the Gandhis is also good news for the Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which would want the Gandhis to continue as the primary opposition leaders, since in their estimation, it would be easier to defeat them in any major confrontation that ensues in the coming years. The regional parties, wherever, they are strong are always hard to beat, but when any of the Gandhis gets pitted against Narendra Modi in an election, the advantage lies solely with the Prime Minister, since in comparison, he appears invincible.
However, the BJP has to realise, sooner than later, that the byelection results have spelt it out in clear terms that price rise and unemployment are going to be major issues and cannot be wished away. In fact, after losing all four seats, one Lok Sabha and three Assembly in Himachal Pradesh, the Chief Minister, Jai Ram Thakur categorically blamed price rise for the debacle. After being reprimanded by the central leadership, he tried to dilute his remarks.
The evidence of the BJP taking his observations seriously was translated into action when the Centre reduced the prices of petrol and diesel by cutting down the taxes, providing immediate relief to people all over the country. The Union government would be keen on controlling prices of every commodity, since the ramifications can prove costly in any electoral battle.
The big question that could be worrying the BJP is that if rising prices and unemployment were the issues that led to its Himachal rout, there would be issues even in the Assembly elections next year. The price rise is not confined to Himachal alone, since people in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur are equally affected by it. This can have a spiralling effect since in the past, parties have lost power due to rising prices. The BJP lost in Delhi in 1998 as the onion and tomato prices had gone beyond control, and contributed amongst other factors, to the grand victory of the Congress.
Although, elections are always fascinating to follow, yet in Uttar Pradesh, the result could have an interesting fallout so far as BJP’s internal politics is concerned. If the BJP loses, political pundits will not hesitate in interpreting the defeat as a countdown for the party in 2024 Lok Sabha Parliamentary polls. If the saffron brigade emerges victorious, many of Modi’s detractors in the Sangh Parivar would start projecting Yogi Adityanath as the future leader of the country.
Coming back to the Congress, the impressive victories in Himachal where the BJP lost the Mandi seat, despite the Chief Minister hailing from there, as well as the lone victory in Karnataka from the CM’s area, must have energized the ordinary worker. In addition, the Congress managed to win a seat in Madhya Pradesh and two seats in Rajasthan, thus ensuring that the party was very much relevant and was not going to concede its space to any other opposition outfit.
The larger message which has gone out for the cadres is that the Gandhis despite being on the backfoot have managed to play a constructive part in the final outcome. This at a time, when the first family has been under attack for lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
Some top leaders like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee have been critical of the Congress in general and Gandhis in particular, and have been attempting to usurp the leadership role of a combined opposition to take on the NDA, ahead of the 2024 polls. This exercise would certainly suffer a setback with the realization that without the Congress as the nucleus, it would be virtually impossible to have any kind of federal front. It is also difficult to imagine any of the Gandhi siblings leading the combined opposition, since Mamata certainly appears to be the most formidable challenger to the BJP, and her acceptance by the grassroots workers of the Congress would not be difficult as she has the same genetic ideological DNA.
However, what happens before 2024 would largely depend on the fallout of the Assembly elections next year. There are many political observers who are convinced that the Congress was attempting to hurt the chances of both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati by magnifying its role in Uttar Pradesh under the high-profile Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The biggest hurdle for an over enthusiastic Priyanka is that the party’s organisation network has simply collapsed.
In Punjab where the Congress had the best chances, the infighting appears to be making things difficult as the elections draw closer. In Goa, Mamata and Arvind Kejriwal have thrown their hat in the ring making it difficult for the grand old party.
Uttarakhand is another state where the Congress has a good chance but all would depend on what kind of damage Kejriwal and his party would inflict during the campaign. Manipur would be a close contest and the party has always had a presence in the Northeast.
The bypolls have made Congress optimistic. But for how long? Between us.