With the last votes cast in the final phase of 2019 Lok Sabha election, the exit polls have unanimously screamed a landslide victory for the BJP -led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). If the exit poll projections actually convert into actual results – remember exit polls, more often than not, go off the mark – the return of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is certain on May 23. And, if that is so, there is much for the Congress party, and its president Rahul Gandhi, to worry and fear about.
If the predictions are anything to go by, the Congress is likely to make only marginal gains from its all-time low of 44 seats that it had been reduced to in 2014. Though before the exit polls started coming in, Rahul had taken to Twitter to slam the Election Commission. After the exit polls, one would be compelled to think if the premature attack was also a veiled acceptance of the defeat that may follow.
Two years ago, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh had conceded that his party was facing an “existential crisis”. The assembly poll results of December 2018 in the Hindi heartland states of MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the Congress was directly pitted against BJP in bipolar contests, had given the party some hope that the “existential crisis” was dissipating, perhaps into a passing electoral crisis which could be reversed, or at least substantially abated, during the Lok Sabha polls. But that hope, for now, seems seriously misplaced.
The electoral gains that the party had made just five months ago by unseating BJP governments, have not just reversed but actually been forfeited almost entirely. But that, if the final outcome actually mirrors the exit poll predictions, should be the least of the Congress party’s concerns.
A tally that is anywhere below a 100 seats would be seen, and amplified by the BJP, as a referendum against Rahul Gandhi’s stewardship of the Grand Old Party. That the party has, with few exceptions like MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Punjab, consistently lost every state election over the past five years contested with Rahul at the vanguard of the poll campaign would be a fact too hard to ignore. And this is where the BJP can be expected to hit hard.
Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, who is also likely to take a major role in the next government irrespective of the numbers with which the BJP forms a government, will find it too irresistible to chide Congress leaders about clinging on to the naamdar (dynast) who has the reflected glory of the Nehru-Gandhi family to fall back on but not the qualities he needs to take his party forward. As was widely witnessed in the run up to the 2014 elections, when the UPA was unambiguously tipped for a washout, and in the years that followed, the Congress could witness a mass desertion of its leaders from across the states, and their destination would no doubt be the BJP.
In MP and Rajasthan, where the recently elected governments under Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot respectively enjoy only a wafer thin majority, or in Karnataka where the Congress-JD (S) ruling alliance is on shaky ground even on its best day, the BJP will, no doubt, try to topple the regimes.
No one enters the electoral fray to be on the losing side and for the Congress, its sheer inability to win makes it a losing proposition. It also makes it difficult for the Congress to obstinately continue pushing for a pole-position in the UPA alliance around which allies must rally. A stinging defeat could, in fact, even make existing allies break ties with the Congress while regional satraps like Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu or even Arvind Kejriwal will become more vocal in their criticism of Rahul for his inability to handle the ‘ego’ of his state leaders who prevented alliances in states like UP, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh or Delhi. The non-aligned state parties repeatedly claimed that they were fighting to keep Modi and the BJP out of power, will find it easier to blame the Congress for the resurgence of the saffron tsunami.
To be fair to the party and Rahul Gandhi, though, the recently concluded election campaign, unlike the one witnessed in 2014, did not see a defeatist Congress fighting with one hand tied to its back. Rahul did come out all guns blazing at Modi and the BJP. To his advantage, there were also ample grounds on which he could corner the government – unemployment, agrarian distress, economic crisis, communal disharmony, et al. And, the party’s manifesto also came out with some potentially vote-winning promises, most notably the minimum income guarantee (NYAY). But if despite all this, the party fails to register a substantial increase in its seats, Rahul and his comrades need to seriously consider an overhaul of their politics.
If the exit polls are proven correct, the noise of dissent against Rahul and the Nehru-Gandhi family’s monopoly on stewardship of the party will pick momentum. The Congress party, however, may not benefit simply by changing its leader. It will need to look deeper to understand why, despite a glorious past, it is staring at a nearly non-existent future.