On the face of it, the Congress can console itself that it broke new ground and won Telangana and that the five Assembly contests garnered it more votes overall than it did for the BJP. The Congress got 9.5 lakh more votes in its total of 4,90,77,907 votes as against the 4,81,33,463 won by the BJP. But the Congress won one State that has 17 Lok Sabha seats while the BJP won three States that, between them, have 65 Lok Sabha seats.
Although Assembly seats do not automatically translate into Lok Sabha seats, they do help maintain control over government and the bureaucracy. Since the trick of electoral politics is to best the closest rival even if they have a healthy vote share, for the BJP this is a superb result that showcases its mastery over the first-past-the-post system in the Hindi heartland.
In the case of the Congress, the loss of three States (in two of which it lost sitting governments) is all the more galling as the party had actually created a template that could have lifted the campaign and potentially given it that much-needed edge. The irony is that its very own State satraps (all defeated now) rejected the blueprint, which was later tweaked and owned by no less than the Prime Minister.
Guarantee card of promises
The backstory begins with the Karnataka election in May 2023. The Congress got an effective design from working professionals who had joined the party such as the election strategist Sunil Kanugolu and former IAS officer Sasikanth Senthil, who headed its election war room. In the then BJP-ruled State, among other campaigns, they also pushed the idea of a guarantee card of promises that workers would take to voters’ homes.
This was not a pamphlet or advertisement but a physical card with explicit promises written on it. The card had a counterfoil on which the worker would write the name and address of the household they had visited. In other words, people were left with a document they could hope to believe in, like a promissory note. Also, in the process of visiting homes, the Congress structure was also being built and organically linked to the electorate.
It was an excellent idea that worked in Karnataka. The Congress won the election, and its government subsequently came good on the promises. That election was seen as a game changer that suddenly changed expectations and inspired influential regional forces to push for a joint alliance with the Congress for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. That alliance was named INDIA and it currently seems to be imploding, although there are hopes that self-interest could still keep the parties together.
Meanwhile, the BJP had learnt its lessons. For these Assembly elections, its thrust was not on Hindutva or national issues but on welfare schemes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had once dismissed welfare schemes as revadis (a derogatory term for freebies), focussed on them in the course of these campaigns. He now speaks of “Modi ki Guarantee”, and this is no doubt a pitch that will extend to the national election.
Even in his victory speech at the BJP national headquarters delivered on December 3, Modi spoke about the destruction of those who seek to come between him and the welfare policies he has lined up for the people. It must be noted that he extended the Centre’s free ration scheme for five more years on November 6, the day before the first phase of polling in some of the States. All this is carefully calibrated. But we must acknowledge that as the original Congress promissory card did, the idea of Modi ki Guarantee suggests delivery on specific schemes.
Even if the BJP was learning from the Congress and tweaking the lessons for its own positioning, Kamal Nath, the Congress’ chief ministerial face for Madhya Pradesh, and Ashok Gehlot, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, had no time for the strategic advice of the All India Congress Committee-backed team. In Rajasthan, for instance, this writer discovered that the Congress ki Guarantee had become nothing more than a pamphlet circulated on WhatsApp groups. Gehlot had mooted some excellent welfare schemes, and a post-election analysis shows limited anti-incumbency against him personally. Yet he refused to change MLAs as advised by the AICC and did not tie up with a party that represented tribal interests. Both these decisions cost him dearly. Three Bharat Adivasi Party MLAs won with comfortable majorities even as most incumbent Ministers and MLAs, whom Gehlot had been advised to change, lost.
BJP’s focus on tribal welfare
Worse was the Congress’ performance in Chhattisgarh, where it appears to have settled on a mix of cronyism, expecting OBCs to come through, trying to copy the BJP on Hindutva, and imagining that tribal people, who make up 32 per cent of the population, would vote for them because they did not see the BJP as an alternative. The Congress was shown the door as the BJP went from door to door with promises focussed on tribal welfare, now pitched as Modi ki Guarantee. The BJP/RSS workers also reached out directly to women: they got as many as 53 lakh forms filled for the Mahtari Vandan Yojana, a scheme that transfers cash to women.
One cannot accuse Gehlot of not seeking to empower or benefit the weaker sections of Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, however, one gets the impression that the Congress was seeking power for the sake of office. How does one reconcile the high-sounding talk of empowerment by the national Congress leadership when Kamal Nath represents nothing more than the old crony culture of the party? The defeat in Madhya Pradesh is of epic proportions, with the BJP having an 8 per cent lead in vote share.
Kamal Nath is not a mass leader even though he may have won his own seat multiple times. He also expended much energy keeping others out of his turf. If in the past Nath has been accused of acting in ways that pushed Jyotiraditya Scindia out of the Congress and into the BJP, in this election he was determined to have nothing to do with constituents of the INDIA grouping who sought partnerships in the State.
Would the outcome have been different if the contest in a State ruled by the BJP for nearly two decades had been fronted by a panel of leaders from the INDIA bloc? We will never know now. Not only has the Congress lost face, the alliance partners are also understandably angry with the party that suspended all political activity for months to focus on the Assembly elections. One can only conclude that the results would have been very different had the campaigning been handled differently.
If the three north Indian States showed a model for defeat, there was an established template for victory too. In Telangana, the Congress wrested power from a rooted State party. Data from the CSDS show that the Congress beat the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in worker outreach. The national party replicated its Karnataka model of workers visiting voter homes and delivering guarantee cards. There were other aspects to the messaging, carefully tuned to the psychology of hope and expectation. A messaging ignored by regional Congress suzerains.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.