NEW DELHI: It was a different kind of birthday for Rahul Gandhi, and the gift he received was a hard-earned one. It was exactly a year ago — on December 11, 2017 — that he took over the reins of the Congress. The prevailing sentiment then was scepticism, even derision, outside the party, and nervous self-doubt within.
A year later, he’s come a long way. With two Hindi heartland states in his pocket, and a photo-finish win in a third, he has not only erased the taunt of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, he has given his party and the opposition some real impetus going into a crucial Lok Sabha election year.
The key question around Rahul was that of winnability. A more than honourable show in a direct fight with the formidable BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh should settle that. That the Congress alliance with the TDP backfired in Telangana, or that its last holdout in the Northeast too has fallen, with the MNF taking Mizoram, receded in importance in this big picture.
The vote share figures brought cheer to the party. In Chhattisgarh, where it won a surprise 68/15 landslide despite the lack of a clear leader and a tripartite field, the Congress got 43.1 per cent votes, up from 40.29 per cent in the 2013 state polls and 38.37 per cent in 2014.
Three-time CM Raman Singh suffered a resounding fall, taking the BJP from 41 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent now. That’s even more dramatic if you take the high of 49 per cent in 2014 — the Lok Sabha tally was a 10/1 knockout in favour of the BJP.
The pendulum swing was starker in Rajasthan. The BJP fell from 45.2 per cent in 2013 — and an astounding high of 55 per cent in 2014 - to 38.8 per cent. The Modi wave had been a veritable tsunami here, taking all 25 Lok Sabha seats from the state.
On the other hand, the Congress improved from 33.1 per cent in 2013 (and a comparable 34 in 2014) to 39.3 per cent now. A more modest gain than was predicted earlier, this was being expected closer to polling due to the duality in leadership in the shape of Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot, bad candidate selection and rebels queering the pitch.The 99/73 seat tally reflected this less-than-emphatic vote shift. This more shaky field may see Gehlot being favoured as CM candidate, because of his greater perceived capacity to handle the many independents.
But Madhya Pradesh saw a real razor-edge fight. The Congress boosted its share from 36.4 per cent in 2013 to 41 per cent, but that only brought it neck-and-neck with the 41.1 per cent that three-time CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan retained, even while sliding from 44.9 per cent.
The 114-109 break-up of seats, also yo-yoing through the day, will very likely set the stage for the drama to continue the next day. The SP (1) and, more crucially, BSP (2) have offered to back the Congress, whose leader Kamal Nath has sought an appointment with Governor Anandiben Patel.
In Telangana, the TRS retained power with a bigger mandate, but the Congress improved its vote share from 25.2 per cent to 28.4 per cent.
Mizoram is the only state where the Congress lost its vote share and the BJP gained. However, the winner is a third player, the Mizo National Front, which returns to power with a clear majority of 26 seats out of 40.
In the final analysis, farm distress, the pain of demonetisation and GST, the anti-incumbency fatigue against BJP CMs, all contributed. Shivraj has to be credited for giving the fight of his life against what seemed to be a losing game. Rahul has shown he has it in him to take on Modi-Shah’s formidable election machinery.