Catch 2017: The year the Congress finally found its mojo
Celebrating the 133rd foundation day of the Congress on Thursday, party president Rahul Gandhi lashed out at the Bharatiya Janata Party government over Union minister Ananth Kumar Hegde's remarks on altering the Constitution. Without naming Hegde, Rahul said it was distressing to see senior BJP members making statements and how the foundation of the country is under threat both surreptitiously and directly.
The Congress' relentless attacks on Hegde first forced the BJP to distance itself from his remarks with the minister eventually tendering an apology. “My comment was misunderstood. I respect the Constitution and believe that it is supreme. If, however, my statement has hurt anyone's sentiment, I have no problems in apologising for it.”
Though the Congress' demand for Hegde's resignation did not materialise, his public apology should have come as a moral victory for the party. This is the second such event where the main Opposition party forced the government on the back foot.
Earlier, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to clarify about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's allegations of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former vice president Hamid Ansari secretly meeting Pakistani officials to discuss Gujarat elections. Soon after the Winter Session began, Congress created an uproar over Modi's allegations and sought an apology from him.
Eventually, Jaitley tried dousing the fire by claiming how Modi never questioned the loyalty and commitment of Singh and Ansari. These two incidents reflect how the dynamics between the government and main Opposition party have changed over the course of one year. If any such incident would have happened during the beginning of the year, the chances of the BJP even clarifying were very bleak.
This is why the beginning of 2017 and the end of it present two contrasting pictures of how this year has been for the Congress. The year began on a disastrous note after party suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It was the party's disastrous performance in the UP elections that led to commentators writing political obituaries of the Grand Old Party.
And there was every reason to believe them. Of the 107 seats it contested in the state, it managed to win only seven witnessing a drop of nearly 6% vote share. Even the party's decision to contest polls in alliance with the Samajwadi Party tanked. Similarly in Uttarakhand, where it was in power, the party managed to win just 11 seats out of the 70 seats its contested. The BJP won with an overwhelming majority securing 59 seats.
To add to its misery, despite emerging as the single-largest party in Manipur and Goa, it somehow failed to form the government after BJP managed to secure crucial alliances with regional parties and independent candidates. The saffron party even managed to poach several of Congress' MLAs to help it boost its numbers in the floor of the Assembly.
In Manipur, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party winning 28 seats only three short of the majority mark. However, BJP managed to form the government with only 21 legislators. Other than regional parties and independents, the saffron party also managed to win over nine Congress MLAs and a lone Trinamool legislator. This exodus of its leaders is a reflection of the trust they had in Congress and its leadership.
Similarly, in Goa, the party won 17 seats falling short of just four seats of majority. Here too, the senior leadership made a mess of its numerical advantage and squandered support of even those parties and independents who had entered into a pre-poll alliance with the party. No one else but the party's senior leadership was to be blamed for the mess it created in these two states.
Punjab proved to be a face saver for the Congress after the party under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh managed to secure a comfortable majority and form the government. Defying the national trend, Captain managed to wrest control of Punjab which remains the only state that the Congress has won since 2015 when it won Bihar where it had to ride piggyback on RJD and JD(U). The last state that the Congress won on its own was way back in 2013 when it won Karnataka.
The results of these elections demoralised the party and no one was placing their bets on the Congress to win or even give a close fights in other elections to come in the latter half of the year. There was also a lot of uncertainty over Rahul's elevation as party president which had the party workers confused over the leadership crisis. However, forced by the Election Commission, the party had to hold internal elections and elect a new president by the end of the year to save itself from the wrath of the election body.
Meanwhile, as the succession plans in the Congress were gaining momentum, the party faced yet another setback after Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar decided to quit the Grand Alliance in Bihar to join hands with BJP. What was even more distressing is that Nitish's decision came at a time when the party was looking to corner the Modi government's decision to implement GST in a haphazard manner.
Congress leadership was hoping that a united Opposition could finally may expose the chinks in Modi's armour who, with each passing election, looked simply invincible. But Nitish's decision managed to take away the sheen from Opposition's protests.
Tide begins to turn
However, a hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) turned out to be a nightmare for BJP, with traders bleeding across sectors leading the economy to dire straits. Combined with the ill effects of demonetisation, the economy suffered these twin blows that saw the country's GDP nosedive by 2%. With the country's growth rate crawling, Congress sensed an opportunity to use the mismanagement of economy as a political tool to settle scores with BJP.
And, where else could it be done better than Gujarat where the business community was suffering under the new tax regime. With Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh going to polls in December, Congress hoped to do the unthinkable – end BJP's 22-year-old rule in Modi's home state. However, not many were convinced that the Congress could come even close.
However, as elections drew closer, Rahul decided to put all his energy into the Gujarat election campaign, which saw him adopt political strategies that had been missing from Congress' previous campaigns. In Gujarat, Rahul campaigned for 22 days from September 25 and addressed around 150 rallies and corner meetings, covering almost 2,600 km by road.
He even refrained from holding joint meetings with members of the minority community to prevent the BJP from communalising the polls by projecting him and the Congress as anti-Hindu and pro-minority. Instead, he visited 26 temples during his campaign and even publicly called himself a Shiv-bhakt.
Though many disagreed with this particular strategy but it did help the Congress in not letting the BJP polarise the polls. The Congress under Rahul managed to strike key alliances with leaders of multiple social movements which saw its political graph rise in the state.
Another factor that rejuvenated the state leadership was Ahmed Patel's Rajya Sabha election, which witnessed veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela and his supporters quitting the party. Marred by these defections, the remaining Congress leadership in the state displayed a unity unlike ever before. Patel's win rejuvenated party cadres who were now hopeful of ending the BJP's rule.
With young leaders like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor backing Congress in the polls, the Grand Old Party presented itself as a genuine political alternative to BJP. These young leaders rallied for the Congress among their respective caste groups which strengthened the party's position in the state.
When the results were announced the Congress and its allies won a total of 80 seats with BJP falling one short of the 100 mark. Though the BJP won, for the Congress it was a much-needed moral victory in Modi and Amit Shah's home turf. Though the Congress lost Himachal Pradesh, its performance in Gujarat won hearts and rejuvenated party cadres who are now emboldened to take on the BJP.
Soon after the Gujarat results, Rahul was unanimously elected party president who took over from his mother and party's longest serving president Sonia Gandhi. Rahul's elevation further stamped his authority in the party which is likely to have major bearing on the organisational setup across states. Multiple state units across the country need complete overhauling to stop factional fights and build party's organisational structure which is non-existent in many states.
2018 brings a whole new set of challenges for both Rahul and the Congress as it will have to battle it out with BJP in eight states where polls are due next year. While the party would hope to retain Karnataka, Mizoram and Meghalaya, it will seek to end BJP's rule in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
The Gujarat elections have given Congress a hope of revival and it remains to be seen whether the party can continue to put up a similar spirited campaign in other states. 2018 will be a semi-final for the Congress before it prepares for the final battle in 2019 where it will have to present a viable alternative to Modi's popularity.