Common political wisdom says that if the Bharatiya Janata Party does well in the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest political weight in India, the party will look good electorally for the polls that follow – in the states as well as the 2019 general election. A resurgent BJP in UP, despite the unlikely alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, would make the political recovery of the Congress in the coming days and months very difficult.
However, the game changer for the Congress will not be the assembly election result in UP. In UP, the Congress's stakes are limited and the only important political consequence of a victory for the alliance would be to assess how badly the BJP been damaged.
The ability of the Congress to survive will be more appropriately reflected in the electoral outcomes of Punjab, Uttarakhand and, to a lesser extent, Goa.
The outcome in Manipur can be left out of this consideration because its Naga-Meitei politics is too specific and has no resonance in the rest of the country. While Punjab (13 Lok Sabha seats), Uttarakhand (5) and Goa (2) do not add very much to any party’s Lok Sabha prospects in 2019, the results of the assembly polls on 11 March are psychologically very important for the Congress and for configuring the emerging shape of politics in the country.
The future of the Congress depends on whether it is able to retain power in the states where it is in power and whether it is able to grab the opportunity in the states where it has the benefit of anti-incumbency against the ruling party.
In Uttarakhand, the Congress has been in power for the last five years. If the party wins the state, it would have showcased its ability to do well despite anti-incumbency. It would have also demonstrated that it can fight with its back to the wall despite the desertion of several important leaders and a series of crooked attempts by the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, to destabilise its government.
As for Punjab, the election is the Congress's to lose. A strong anti-incumbency against the ruling BJP-Akali alliance has made the state ripe for the picking and the Congress, too, has got its act together under Captain Amarinder Singh.
Now, the question is whether AAP can steal the election from right under the nose of the Congress as it did from a supremely confident BJP in Delhi. There are political pundits who say Punjab will see AAP sweeping to power. By all accounts, there was new political energy and sparkle in AAP’s campaign in Punjab. However, sceptics warn that the structure of political allegiances in rural areas is quite different from highly urbanised electorates like in Delhi, and the sentiment for AAP may be more smoke than fire. The Jat Sikhs are rumoured to have rallied behind the Congress because they suspect that AAP wants to install a non-Jat Sikh regime in the state. It is possible then that the Congress may make the winning mark in Punjab.
Should the Congress somehow pull off a win in Punjab, it will send a signal that voters are not looking at AAP as a national alternative to the BJP – and that they have chosen a bigger and more viable national party instead.
If, however, Arvind Kejriwal scores a decisive victory in Punjab, then it is AAP that is likely to be seen as the national alternative to the BJP and not the Congress.
In Goa, too, the BJP is the ruling party. Its defeat at the hands of Congress would indicate the party’s improved position in the rest of the country. In fact, the Congress only has to emerge as the single largest party in Goa to signal a national shift of voters away from the BJP.
In such a scenario, the Congress would be back in the public imagination as a contender that has the ability to give a bloody nose to the ‘Emperor’; it would be seen as fighting fit for the next state assembly election towards the end of this year in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat; and Rahul Gandhi might be anointed party president earlier than expected.
On the other hand, if the BJP gets even a wafer-thin majority in Goa, grabs power in Uttarakhand and leaves Punjab to AAP, then things would get very difficult for the Congress. It will not be seen as a serious claimant to power in the Gujarat election in December this year; it might not be able to retain Karnataka in May next year; and it may also not be in a position to take advantage of the anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the assembly elections of November 2018.
As no one contributes to the election funds of a party seen to be in terminal decline, contesting a whole host of these elections would also become tough for the Congress as it would run short of funds. What happens in the general election five to six months later would then be a foregone conclusion.
This scenario would be unaffected by a victory of the SP-Congress alliance in UP, with Congress merely at the tail of the alliance. In such circumstances, even if a grand alliance is put together by the non-BJP parties for the 2019 general election, the Congress will not be able to play a leadership role as it would not be able to bring anything to the table.