The principal opposition party in the country has failed a crucial test of its political muscle ahead of the general elections in 2024. In a straight contest against the BJP, the Congress lost two big States of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and was unable to wrest Madhya Pradesh which returned Shivraj Singh Chouhan for the fifth term as Chief Minister. This is almost a repeat of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections where the BJP won 170 of the 186 seats in a straight fight against the Congress. The question is – is the final fight already lost or are there lessons that the Congress could still learn? There may yet be time for the Congress to relook its strategy, develop a core thrust and pitchfork some new faces. This seems to have worked for it in Telangana.

The Congress’ significant victory in Telangana also brings to fore the perception that the peninsular States have historically been kinder to the Grand Old Party. Similarities are drawn with Indira Gandhi’s decimation post-Emergency in the northern parts in the 1977 elections when the South reposed its faith in her leadership. However, contrasting results for the Congress in Telangana and the northern States appears mainly due to wrong strategy. In Telangana, Congress designed a cohesive campaign and moulded its organisation to convert the latent anti-incumbency in the State into a wave against the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS). From 19 seats in the 2018 polls to 64 in the just-concluded elections, the Congress crafted a victory through its youthful leaders, led by the local unit president Anumula Revanth Reddy who relentlessly attacked the family rule of K Chandrashekhara Rao and raked up massive corruption scandals in the Kaleshwaram project, Dharani portal land records controversy etc. Along with new AICC poll managers, especially the canny Sunil Kanugolu, the Congress whipped up an energetic campaign and worked cohesively.

In the northern States, this cohesion was notably absent; internal dissensions marred the Congress’s prospects. Party leaders were at odds – Ashok Gehlot-versus-Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, Kamal Nath-versus-Digvijay Singh in MP, Bhupesh Bhagel-versus-TS Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh. Factionalism in Rajasthan meant that Gehlot persisted in fielding MLAs who had been loyal to him. The result is that of the 95 sitting MLAs who were given tickets, 61 have been defeated. In Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel rendered TS Singh Deo and his loyalists ineffective while making an inept bid to wrest the BJP’s Hindutva agenda — launching schemes to buy cow-dung/cow urine, beautifying temples etc. In MP, there was no fresh appeal in Kamal Nath’s bid to dislodge the popular Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The vote share difference between the two parties — 2.16 per cent in Rajasthan, 4.04 per cent in Chhattisgarh and 8.15 per cent in MP — is not impossible to bridge if the Congress streamlines its strategy and builds a new line of leadership. A weakened principal Opposition party does not augur well for a democracy.