On the cusp of 2019, the Congress won three big Hindi heartland states— Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. With the victories coming just months before the Lok Sabha elections, the party was upbeat and felt it had found the right narrative to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Going by the success of its campaign in the Assembly polls, the Congress zeroed in on the issues of agricultural crisis, unemployment and corruption, especially the allegations of corruption in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France, as the template on which it fought the BJP in the general elections. A confident Rahul Gandhi led the party from the front, and was extremely aggressive in his attacks on Modi, particularly with regard to the alleged Rafale scam.
However, the best laid plans of the principal opposition party, which included using its 'Brahmastra'—Priyanka Gandhi Vadra—who took her much-awaited political plunge ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, proved to be ineffective in the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks and the Modi government's counter-strike in Balakot. And as the results of the parliamentary elections proved, Rahul's strident attacks on the prime minister with regard to his alleged role in the purported scam in the purchase of Rafale jets may have even backfired, given the hyper-nationalistic mood worked up by the BJP post-Pulwama and the saffron party's projection of Modi as being the only leader who could take care of the security concerns of the country.
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The Congress could manage only 52 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, just a shade better than the 44 it had won in the 2014 polls. And Rahul's defeat in the family pocket borough of Amethi at the hands of BJP's Smriti Irani only accentuated the party's disastrous electoral performance. The virtual decimation of the Congress at the hustings brought to a head the ongoing conflict between the old guard and what is known as Team Rahul. It was best reflected in Rahul's decision to resign from the post of party president, owning up responsibility for the electoral debacle. If at all the idea was that the resignation would lead to a spate of resignations from Congress leaders in solidarity with the party chief, thus giving him a free hand to the restructure the organisation, that was not to be. And as the party struggled to find his successor, the leadership vacuum made matters worse for it as infighting and exodus of leaders in several states, especially the ones that were to have state elections later in the year, continued unabated.
The stalemate finally ended with the Congress Working Committee asking Sonia Gandhi to take charge as interim party president. And the immediate challenge before her was to prepare the party for Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Her consensus-building approach was on display as she attempted to strike a balance in the strife-torn Haryana unit by naming Kumari Selja as state unit chief even as she allowed the restive Jat leader Bhupinder Hooda to be the face of the party in the election, by naming him head of the Congress Legislature Party and by letting him have a free hand in choice of candidates.
Also, a decision was taken that the party would focus only on local issues in the state elections and not fall into the BJP's trap by responding to its nationalistic agenda that included Article 370 and National Register of Citizens. It was decided that the party's campaign would attempt to benefit from the anti-incumbency against the BJP's sitting chief ministers.
At the turn of the year, Assembly polls have provided the beleaguered party with a ray of hope since they showed that bread and butter issues were more important at the state level. The party surprised itself by giving the BJP a run for its money in Haryana. In Maharashtra, it finds itself in the power matrix after joining hands with unlikely ally, the Shiv Sena, to form government. And in Jharkhand, it played second fiddle to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to ensure that an alliance of opposition parties took on the incumbent BJP government, with the strategy proving to be successful as the Mahagathbandhan won the tribal state.
Meanwhile, in what could be seen as an opportunity as well as a challenge to the Congress, the twin issues of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens are dominating the political discourse. If the party was ill-prepared in its response to the nullification of Article 370, and its leaders spoke in different voices on the issue, it was ready with a better thought out messaging on CAA and it was ready with its homework to promptly approach the Supreme Court challenging the contentious legislation. However, it will be challenging for the party to decide on the extent to which it can go to the streets in opposition against the amendment. The BJP has charged the Congress with instigating the protesters, and there is wariness with regard to the polarising potential of the issue.
As the year winds up, there is buzz that Rahul could soon take charge again as Congress president. The lead role that he adopted in the party's Satyagraha organised to protest against CAA-NRC also indicated that.
However, if he makes a comeback as Congress president, Rahul might find himself in a somewhat weakened position vis-a-vis the seniors in the party, especially since the old guard appeared to have gained the upper hand in their battle of wits. Also, he has the unenviable task of living up to the challenge of working in circumstances wherein the ruling dispensation is hostile towards its political opponents and unwilling to observe the niceties of yore. The arrest of senior leader P. Chidambaram, who was recently released on bail after spending 106 days in jail in connection with the INX-Media case, is perceived as an outcome of the unrelenting politics of the Modi-Shah combine.
It has been an extremely challenging time for the Congress, and it was felt by many that the party was going through an existential crisis. But 2019 also gave the principal opposition party with a few opportunities and a little hope.