In these days of Twenty20 cricket, let this column lay claim to a hat-trick of sorts in accurately calling three vital state elections in a row. After predicting a victory for Mayawati’s BSP in Uttar Pradesh and a Narendra Modi-led BJP in Gujarat, on 5 May, I wrote that the BJP will be tantalizingly close to a majority in Karnataka assembly polls. As I write this column Sunday night, the final tally is 110 seats for the BJP, just three short of a clear majority, vindicating my assessment.
Since the 19 May Bottom Line already gave you the reasons why the Congress will lose and what the pundits will all start saying Sunday evening and beyond, let us look at how the party can learn from the stinging loss and try avoid similar losses in assembly elections coming up in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, later this year. So, here are seven tips for the Congress party to turn around its fortunes:
Don’t bank on negative vote
Increasingly, smart politicians are learning ways of reversing anti-incumbency by offering pro-poor, pro-people governments. In Karnataka, the Congress was banking entirely on a negative vote against the Janata Dal (Secular)-BJP coalition, which simply didn’t materialize. Add to that, the Congress party didn’t convince voters it can govern better, if elected.
All the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, going to polls later this year, have begun implementing similar pro-poor policies such as subsidized foodgrain and women welfare schemes, which have considerably blunted negative sentiments against incumbency. So, banking only on a negative vote to win won’t be enough.
In the states going to polls later this year, the Congress party’s internal organization is in a poor state and not vibrant. The party is headed by lightweights as Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents who will find it difficult to win their own assembly seats. They do not have the stature, experience and acceptability to lead the party to victory in their states. The Congress might want to assign leaders with a mass following to lead the effort.
Rethink anointing leaders
The Congress has all along adopted a policy of choosing its chief ministerial candidates after elections. But, these days, elections are increasingly becoming personality oriented where the appeal of the leader considerably adds to the party’s appeal. The BJP benefited immensely from the appeal of a Modi in Gujarat or a B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. It is time for the Congress to shed its inhibitions and choose its chief ministerial candidates well in advance, if it is serious about winning.
Get caste calculus right
A key reason for the Congress party’s failure in Karnataka stems from its failure to clearly understand and exploit caste dynamics. The party failed to dent the Lingayat community and corner a large share of the Vokkaliga vote, who sided with the BJP and the JD(S), respectively. The Congress is likely to suffer similar reverses elsewhere too. For instance, in Rajasthan, influential castes, such as Jats and Meenas, may spoil the party’s prospects due to its perceived championing of the Gujjar cause, even as Vasundhara Raje government there has a dismal governance track record. While aspirations of intermediary castes for political representation has been rising, far from attracting them, the Congress has appointed Brahmin state PCC presidents in many states, possibly fearing encroachments by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Counter future BSP damage
There must be some relief for the Congress that Mayawati’s BSP hasn’t hurt much in Karnataka. However, in the states going to polls this year, the BSP has a much stronger presence and that alone could cost the Congress. The party could adopt a more Dalit-friendly approach to stave off what will be a real threat from the BSP.
Improve election management
The dynamics of election management have changed but the Congress still believes in old ways and methods. Gone are the days when leaders of the Gandhi family addressed a few huge meetings citing the names of “Panditji, Indiraji, Rajivji” and secured votes. Today, campaign and election management has acquired a new significance.
The Congress sorely lacks a savvy election strategist, such as the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, who has so far struck gold for his party wherever he managed the campaign. While one cannot win elections through election management strategies alone, it can give a decisive edge to a campaign.
Reluctant campaigns are visible
The Congress was a reluctant campaigner in Karnataka and looked for several ways of postponing elections. Far from being aggressive, the party started looking like a loser several months before elections were called. The party has to believe in itself and not look for early excuses for eventual defeats. Voters are quick to catch on to that mood and then it can become the reality.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org