2024 Elections: The Last Stand Of Congress

Prof. Vidhu Shekhar

Jun 10, 2024, 06:26 PM | Updated Jun 11, 2024, 01:38 PM IST

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi
  • Congress is rejoicing merely because it exceeded the lowest expectations.
  • After the results of 4 June, Rahul Gandhi had a different spring in his step. Appearing in front of the camera, his smile was broad, perhaps in the afterglow of having taken his party from 52 seats to 99 seats in the current election. It could also be because the INDI Alliance, an alliance of 42 parties, including Congress, won 232 seats. But, more likely, his happiness came from preventing the BJP from achieving a majority on its own.

    The threat to existence

    The December 2023 state elections created a sea change in the attitude of political parties in India. Following their convincing win in Karnataka, the Congress was confident about the state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Rajasthan. They expected to retain Chhattisgarh, win in Telangana, and secure at least one of the other two states. Confident of these wins, they postponed seat-sharing negotiations with INDI Alliance, hoping to gain a better position after the December elections.

    The results, though, were a bigger surprise than the results of the current elections. BJP swept Madhya Pradesh with more than 2/3rd majority despite being an incumbent. It won Rajasthan and, more surprisingly, Chhattisgarh as well.

    Only in Telangana was Congress able to get back to power. Suddenly, the equations for Congress appeared completely changed. Not only did it lose the negotiating position with its allies in the INDI alliance, but with the next Lok Sabha elections looming in 4 months, the future looked grim.

    As 2024 approached, the possibility of a third straight defeat since 2014 loomed large. Congress had been reduced to less than 10 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats in two consecutive elections. For a party that had ruled the country with a 2/3rd majority at points in time, they were already a pale shadow of their former self. To top it, taking on Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge's remark of 400+ in parliament, the incumbent PM Modi adopted the slogan of 400+ for his NDA Alliance & 370 for the BJP.

    The situation seemed dire for Congress. It wasn't just the question of winning or losing an election; rather, it posed a survival threat to Congress. The possibility of a third consecutive and convincing drubbing would have meant that even the core loyalists would have lost hope in the party.

    There was a risk of state chief ministers becoming defiant. Early signs of all this appeared in February-March 2024 when there was an exodus of many leaders, old and new, away from Congress and into the BJP. There was a real risk of this exodus turning into a deluge if it performed as poorly as it did in the last two general elections.

    Pushed to the complete corner, facing a do-or-die situation, the Congress party, and its leaders, especially Rahul Gandhi, the party's president without an office, took their last stand.

    The last stand of Congress

    A last stand typically refers to a situation where a person or group faces a do-or-die situation and decides to fight with everything they have. While romanticised in the military for a show of bravery, in politics, such situations often have parties indulging in all tricks possible to escape the inevitable death. The threat of survival is a powerful motivator, producing highly determined, ready-to-do-anything and whatever it takes to survive participants for their proverbial last stand.

    And that is what Congress did. Faced with the imminent threat of extinction, a motivated Congress unleashed a barrage of strategies and tactics, ethical and unethical, to try and turn the tide in its favour.

    First and foremost, Congress became extremely pliable and generous with its coalition partners. It wooed everyone in the way they wanted. Agreeing to generous terms for seats, even taking in alliance in one state but not another with the same party. Being pliant even with potential alliance partners who finally did not join — and despite shenanigans by some parties proposing the name of Shri Kharge as PM candidate — Congress, with a ready-to-compromise attitude, was able to stitch up the alliance along with a seat-sharing formula with 42 parties.

    The aim was to achieve a super-consolidation of non-BJP votes. To this end, beyond the coalition work, a whisper campaign based on religious sentiment also followed, making BJP a great villain in the eyes of some. Surveys point to the fact that this consolidation was well achieved.

    Then, in terms of the campaign agenda, they reduced personal attacks on PM Modi, restricting name-calling him to a dictator — a vague, non-quantifiable, and English term. Compare this to the names called to him in earlier elections — “Maut ka Saudagar” and “Chowkidar Chor hai” — both grave abuses, and in Hindi.

    Congress also took an ultra-left turn this time in their campaign. This included promises of free money distribution of Rs 1 lakh, which could be increased to 2 lakh rupees “if Rahul Gandhi got angry.” Added to this was a complete wealth distribution agenda, which used tamed wordings in the manifesto. However, in campaign speeches, especially those of Rahul Gandhi, it was much more of a “snatch from the rich and give to the poor” thing.

    It is important to note here that, being a last stand, the Congress' aim was not really to win but to survive. So it didn't necessarily have to woo a large chunk of voters. A good marginal shift towards Congress was all that was targeted. There is always a chance that such aggressive — and likely devastating for the economy — distributive justice calls will find enough takers.

    A 'mayavi' war

    If Congress and Rahul Gandhi had restricted themselves only to the above, it might have had some claim of a high standard in political space as it wants others to follow. But alas, that is not the case. Desperate, it adopted extremely dubious means to try and achieve its goal.

    Along with its ultra-left turn, to try and make unreasonable promises of money and wealth distribution sound real, Congress distributed so called guarantee cards. They were semi-authentic-looking redemption cards, ostensibly for voters to redeem after the elections.

    Reportedly, after the elections, there were long lines of women to open bank accounts and in front of Congress offices to use these cards. In handing such cards, the communication was also made that PM Modi would stop all his food schemes and others if he came to power, versus Congress, which is giving such “receipts” to redeem money post-election. Again, the aim was not a mass buy-in to such illegal tactics in the election but to solidify its own voter base and gain new ones on the margin.

    The distinction of the most unethical and sinister thing, though, would be reserved for using deep fakes to create a rift in society and gain from it. Reportedly, several deep fake audios and videos were made, which had the home minister and prime minister mentioning about removing reservations if the BJP comes to power with good numbers.

    Foot soldiers of Congress and its allies then latched on to the 400 paar slogans and said see this audio; that is why they are asking for 400 par. Reportedly, they roamed around from village to village and showcased these and other meticulously prepared propaganda items on projector screens in villages.

    Caste was already introduced as the theme of the elections of Congress+ via Rahul Gandhi’s big ask for the Caste Census as a precursor for wealth distribution. The ostensible aim was to produce a rift in the majority of Hindus via caste identity, harking back to the old British era of divide and rule. The minority, as mentioned earlier, was either way super-consolidated using the fear of religion.

    To receive these caste-fractured Hindus, Congress and allies had already made seat and ticket distribution accordingly. For example, for the first time, the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh distributed tickets primarily to non-Yadvas, except for, of course, the family members of the party president.

    This was to counter Yadav-waad or Yadav dominance and the bad fallout on law and order that follows such dominance. The aim was to receive the non-Yadav OBC, SCs, etc., disenchanted via a series of guarantee card campaigns and deep fakes of reservation audios, amongst other things.

    All this Mayavi war on its own still wouldn't have been enough, but one final aspect of such last stands aided the opposition.

    Aided by complacency from dominance & long incumbency

    One of the characteristics of last stand is that by its very nature — which is that one party has a very dominant position and another is on the verge of annihilation — there is an inbuilt complacency in the dominant party.

    Dominance breeds this complacency and is systemic in nature. The same was the case with BJP+. Their position seemed so dominant that the sense of inevitable outcome made them make less effort than they could have. Inevitable outcomes also breed the surfacing of smaller and more localised issues. With the centre expected to win handsomely, let me settle my score with local candidates. Or give a verdict on them rather than the larger election.

    The BJP foot soldiers also turned up less than expected. The inevitability of win and exhaustion from the Akshat Wave, where all the same foot soldiers had approached door to door just a couple of months before to distribute Akshat for the Shri Ram Mandir inauguration, both contributed to it.

    There are clear reports that mobilisation by BJP via voter slip distribution was significantly less across the country. This is perhaps the only election in recent times that didn't have full BJP voter mobilisation on the ground.

    Yet, the news is bad for Congress and not that bad for the BJP

    Pushed to the corner, Congress+ had put all it had in the election. From controlling Rahul Gandhi in his personal attack on PM Modi to an ultra-left turn, a Mayavi War, and divide-and-rule campaigns. And it was able to catch the BJP in a state of complacency and without voter mobilisation. In short, there couldn't have been better alignment of efforts, will, and time for Congress.

    But what did that yield finally? The Congress’ INDI Alliance of 42 parties ended up with 232 seats, which is less than the seats of BJP alone at 240. BJP Alliance of NDA was still able to achieve a majority and is forming the government. PM Modi has returned with a historic third term — the first PM to get it after 1962. There are other silver linings for the BJP as well — winning several concurrent assembly elections, entering many new areas in the country etc.

    On the other hand, Congress itself couldn’t touch 100 seats. As it has been said by some, this resulted in the third best performance of the BJP ever and third-worst performance of Congress ever.

    On vote share, Congress gained about 1.5 per cent — from 19.7 per cent to 21.2 per cent. Meanwhile, the BJP moved from 37.7 per cent to 36.6 per cent, losing less than 1 per cent of the total votes polled. BJP was also able to increase its absolute number of votes polled from 2019.

    Yet Congress is rejoicing merely because it exceeded the lowest expectations.

    That, with all its efforts, Congress could not restrict the BJP from forming the government truly makes it Congress’ last stand. It is unlikely that the stars will be aligned any more favourably towards it than it was in the 2024 elections or that the BJP will be caught complacent again. With all its ways of the Mayavi war/ultra-left divide and rule campaign, etc, also out, a counter will surely be formed going ahead.

    In short, this may well be the best possible performance of Congress+ in recent times. Nonetheless, it has proven to be insufficient to revive the party or to dethrone the BJP. With a third consecutive term, the BJP is now firmly entrenched as the dominant force in Indian politics, and Congress remains on the path toward further decline.

    Dr. Vidhu Shekhar holds a Ph.D. in Economics from IIM Calcutta, an MBA from IIM Calcutta, and a B.Tech from IIT Kharagpur. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Finance & Economics at Bhavan's SPJIMR, Mumbai. Previously, he has worked as an investment banker and hedge fund analyst. Views expressed are personal.

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