The Congress is facing new challenges in the post Pulwama political scenario. It had planned for a poll theme to focus on the failures of the Modi government but Pulwama and Balakot have forced the party to recalibrate its strategy to meet new challenges. While till recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on the back foot for his inability to deliver all that he had promised in 2014, the post Pulwama scene has changed all that. Modi has benefitted immensely with the country seeing him as a decisive and strong leader.
The first thing that has gone awry for the Congress is its poll strategy. The BJP quickly snatched the opportunity and has now made its muscular security policy the main poll theme. The Congress realises that the scenario emerging from the Pulwama terror attack has tremendous potential to alter the electoral narrative ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. The party had been planning to raise important issues like jobs, agrarian crisis, demonetisation and GST, but the terror strike has pushed them all aside. The biggest challenge before the party is how to bring back the real issues like jobs etc. to the forefront so that people can evaluate the performance of the government.
Though after the Pulwama attack, the Congress had looked unsure about its electoral strategy, after the Congress Working Committee meeting this week in Ahmedabad, the party has finally decided its strategy. Now the Congress has zeroed in on the twin planks of jobs and unemployment as its main focus.
The second challenge is the alliances. Though electoral victories in December in the three Hindi heartland states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh – had brought cheer to the Congress, Lok Sabha polls are a different ball game. Arithmetic is strength and allies hold the key for success in the ensuing polls for both the UPA and NDA. This is why both coalitions are running after new allies as well as holding on to the old ones.
While the BJP, which was lagging behind initially, has moved in quickly to stitch alliances, the Congress is dithering still. Just this week, the BJP managed to get back the AGP, which had severed its connections recently on the issue of the citizenship bill and also sealed a seat-sharing deal with its old partner Apna Dal in U.P. The BJP has firmed up alliances with the AIADMK and DMDK in Tamil Nadu, with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, with Akali Dal in Punjab and with the JD (U) in Bihar among others. It also has smaller partners.
The Congress could have handled the alliance issue with more finesse. Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Bihar are states where the Congress has finalised seat-sharing arrangements. While it is part of the United Democratic Front in Kerala, there is no clarity on Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Jammu and Kashmir. In UP, while the Congress is ready to join the SP-BSP-RLD gathbandhan, BSP chief Mayawati is against including the Congress in the alliance. This could be a setback for the party. In Delhi, the Aam Admi Party is keen to have an alliance with the Congress but the latter has refused to have any truck with the AAP. Talks with AAP have reopened again for a tie-up. Seat sharing talks with the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir are going on. In West Bengal it is tactical seat sharing with the Left parties.
There is an impression that the Congress has been egoistic and unwilling to budge while the BJP has been willing to concede space to allies in order to firm up alliances – be it the JD (U) or Shiv Sena or the AIADMK and Akali Dal. The Congress should be flexible in sealing alliances or else it will be the loser.
Thirdly, Rahul Gandhi inducted his sister Priyanka Gandhi recently and made her AICC in-charge of eastern U.P. Though her entry was dramatic she disappeared from the scene after Pulwama on February 14 and has only now surfaced again. It is a new challenge for the party to keep her in the headlines after Pulwama. In the normal course she would have made front-page news.
However, one big advantage for the Congress is that the BJP has to sustain the terror theme for the next two months until the polls are completed and this may be difficult. This is where the opportunity lies for the Congress and the opposition. There is a lot of enthusiasm in the Congress after winning the three Hindi heartland states in December and this enthusiasm needs to be kept up till the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress Party’s success depends on how the party seizes opportunities and keeps itself in focus in the coming weeks through better communicative skills and party organisation. As for a national level mahagatbandhan, it is only an idea and not a reality.