Modi's magic waning but no joy yet for India's Congress

Landscape shifting for India's biggest parties as elections loom but Congress picking up steam
Modi's magic waning but no joy yet for India's Congress

Indians take selfies with a cardboard cut-out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Kumbh Mela festival area in Allahabad on Dec. 20, 2018. (Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP)

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his pro-Hindu party to an unprecedented victory in the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been on a winning spree, snatching power in several states.

But with the general elections looming in April, his Midas touch or "Modi magic" appears to be on the wane as the rival Congress Party gets back into the groove and starts to find its old rhythm.

This was manifested on Dec. 11 last year when the election results for five states were declared. Congress won the three key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. 

For many Congress supporters, the victory suggests the party, which has ruled India for the longest time since it gained independence, is finding its feet again.

Over the last four and a half years, Congress has ceded power to the BJP in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Assam, Haryana, and even the predominantly Christian states of Meghalaya and Mizoram.

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Many people believe this shows how the party led by Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the country's first political dynasty, is regaining its base among Hindu voters.

The Congress Party's recent victories in the three Hindu-heartland states augurs well for its chances of success in the 2019 general elections, according to its supporters.

Together, the three states make up 65 of the 543 elected seats in India's parliament.

In 2014 when the BJP and its allies swept the national polls, they won over 315 of the 543 seats. They also claimed 61 of the 65 seats in these key states.

But pundits are now predicting that number could drop as low as 30 for the pro-Hindu party in the next poll.

Meanwhile, Congress's fortunes could be due for a reversal as the public grows increasingly tired of Modi's machinations and manipulations.

The BJP's winning spree in several Indian states is generally attributed to political manipulation, smart electoral management, including the use of "money power" to engineer the defections of MPs from their parties, and of course Modi's popularity, much of which is built on hyperbole.

But that is now in jeopardy as people rail against the regime for a host of social ills, with farmers still mired in dire straits, unemployment continuing to rise, and the economy showing no sign of a turnaround. The net result: India is suffering from a choked cash flow.

Modi won the election on the plank of building a Hindu-dominant society. As such, it came as little surprise he won the Hindu vote. The problem is that Hindus also need jobs so they can put food on the table, and in this sense, Modi isn't delivering.

That being said, Congress also failed to eke out a convincing victory in two of the three states it recently won, suggesting the public remains deeply divided over which of the two main parties can best serve their interests.

In Madhya Pradesh, for example, where the BJP has ruled for the last 15 years, Congress only managed to win 114 seats, two shy of a majority. That means it must depend on the support of smaller parties to govern.

In Rajasthan, which has a 200-member legislature, Congress pocketed 99 seats, handing it a wafer-thin majority.

The situation was different in Chhattisgarh, where Congress won a landslide by grabbing 68 of the 90 seats that make up its assembly. As the smallest of the three states, however, Chhattisgarh only has 11 lawmakers representing it in parliament.

A significant number of votes in these three states also went to independent candidates and smaller parties, showing the public's growing dissatisfaction with the the BJP and Congress.

After the 2014 parliamentary elections, in which Congress took a heavy hit, veteran Congress politician A.K. Antony — a self-proclaimed agnostic — blamed the party's poor performance on the "loss of Hindu votes." That year's poll represented a new all-time low for the party, which netted just 44 seats in parliament, or less than 10 percent of the total.

Without a doubt, Congress is much happier now as it is seeing some of those lost Hindu votes return to its fold.

The party's leadership admit Congress was dealt a heavy blow when the BJP cast it as being anti-Hindu, and claimed it was bent on appeasing Muslims at all costs.

"That changed with the recent state polls. We managed to regain some of that lost Hindu support base," one Congress leader told ucanews.com on condition of anonymity.

In some ways, the BJP's loss is not as significant. It could even serve as a blessing in disguise during the upcoming national elections.

"Growing sentiment against the incumbent ruling party in those states will now work in our favor, and to the disadvantage of Congress," BJP leader Virendra Sachdeva said.

Many pundits believe the BJP should have lost more seats in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh because of the sentiment against the incumbent government. But the party's ability to stay so hot on Congress's heels suggests it is still a force to be reckoned with.

Then again, as BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli surmised, victory in the state polls can have little bearing on the parliamentary elections.

For example, the BJP won all three key states in December 2003 but lost the parliamentary elections five months later.

Now Congress will focus on patching up its wounds after suffering miserable losses in two more states, Mizoram and Telangana, which revealed the results of their elections on Dec. 11 last year.

Mizoram, a Christian stronghold, was an especially painful state for the party to surrender as it has governed there for the last decade.

Congress has gambled by forging alliances with several smaller parties, with mixed results.

In the southern state of Telangana, the party teamed up with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), but their alliance proved an unmitigated disaster when voters cast their ballots.

As both Congress and BJP sharpen their swords for the looming elections, the battle for control of parliament in New Delhi is far from over. In fact, it has only just begun.

 

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based political commentator.

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