Congress president Rahul Gandhi could be staring at another crisis, despite his best efforts to inflict electoral damage on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), if the exit polls released on Sunday are proved right when counting takes place on 23 May.
The results will be particularly significant for the Congress as the 2019 poll is the first general election the party is contesting under the leadership of Gandhi, who took over as party president in December 2017. Gandhi has introduced a series of changes, including striking a balance between the old guard, which prefers status quo, and young blood with fresh ideas. The exit poll predictions, therefore, give a peek into the challenges in store for Gandhi.
In 2014, the Congress faced a historic loss, winning only 44 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of only 19.3%. The 2014 general election was its worst performance ever. Most exit polls on Sunday predicted that the opposition party could double its tally compared to 2014, but this would not be enough for its revival leave alone a return to its glory days.
Most exit polls predicted that Congress together with its alliance partners could muster up anywhere between 80 and 160 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The bigger worry for the Congress, however, could also be that the gap between its seat count and that of the BJP is predicted to be well over 100 seats.
“We will wait for the results when they come out on Thursday. For now, this is a wave only on television sets. Frankly, our ballpark figure was somewhere around 125-130 seats and we are confident that we will maintain that alone," said a senior Congress parliamentarian, who is also contesting the elections, requesting anonymity.
“Also, one has to ask that if the BJP is facing such losses as are being projected by the exit polls in Uttar Pradesh, where exactly is it making up the numbers? We think that we will perform much better in direct contest states where the predictions for the BJP seem to be low," the leader said.
Post its historic loss in 2014, with the exception of Punjab, the Congress did not win any state election on its own until December last year when it defeated the BJP in the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Congress leaders feel that their performance in states where the party is in a direct contest with the BJP, such as these three, would be critical. In 2014, the Congress had won just two out of the 65 parliamentary seats that these three states together account for.
The results in Gujarat will also be significant. The BJP won all seats in the state in the 2014 general election, pushing Congress to the margins. Congress bounced back, reducing the BJP tally to its lowest in two decades during the state assembly polls in 2017, but it was not enough.
“The Congress needs to rethink on its leadership and organization. The exit polls reflect what we have been saying for a long time: that the Congress needs to do a serious rethink and introspection on how its campaign is being shaped and what it is doing in terms of its political strategies. This includes the decisions it has made, or not made, when it comes to alliances," said S.K. Dwivedi, former head of the political science department at Lucknow University.
“The contest on the ground is Prime Minister Narendra Modi versus who? The Congress has not been able to answer that question convincingly. To take on Modi, the Congress needs a very strong leadership, which it is missing right now," he said.