What can Congress learn from Gujarat loss and Himachal win

There are also lessons from the Bharat Jodo Yatra, for upcoming polls

PTI12_08_2022_000149A Hill joy: A Congress worker celebrates the party’s win in Himachal Pradesh | PTI

THE OUTCOME OF the latest round of assembly elections has presented the Congress with two extreme scenarios. It has plenty to be concerned about in Gujarat, where it saw its worst-ever defeat, while the victory in Himachal Pradesh has offered it a glimmer of hope.

As the Congress prepared itself for verdict day, the issue that was most discussed was how, in the event of an adverse outcome, it could convincingly de-link the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra from its performance at the hustings. There was concern that there would be questions about the yatra’s purpose even as the party continued to lose elections. That people would forget the walkathon was intended to be an intensive outreach exercise that would―besides refurbishing Rahul’s image as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prime challenger―create momentum for the party’s preparations ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. “Bharat Jodo Yatra is not an election yatra,” said Pawan Khera, chairman of Congress’s media and publicity. “It is about larger issues. Going by the questions being asked, should the yatra have focused only on Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh?”

Regardless, on the day of the results, all eyes were on the yatra as it went through Rajasthan, which will go to polls in late 2023. What made it more interesting was that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was the senior observer of the party's campaign in Gujarat and state leader Raghu Sharma, who is close to Gehlot, was the Gujarat in-charge.

The defeat in Gujarat would likely be brushed away by the party as its inability to match the might of the BJP in terms of resources and the wherewithal it enjoys on account of having ruled the state for more than two decades. However, questions about why the party failed to build on the momentum created by its performance in the 2017 elections remain. Also, it has been asked whether its so-called silent campaign this time resulted in the party giving up its space to the AAP, which ran an aggressive, high-decibel campaign. The Gujarat results are a stern reminder to the Congress that it needs to watch out for the damage that the AAP can cause. It is most evident in Delhi, where the AAP has taken up the Congress's vote bank in its entirety and the Congress is at best a bit player now.

As regards Himachal Pradesh, it provides the party with hope as it is felt that bread-and-butter issues trumped over the ruling BJP's attempts to polarise the discourse by focusing on issues like the Uniform Civil Code. “It is reassuring that issues that really matter in people's lives such as unemployment and inflation were important in the elections in Himachal Pradesh, and that when it came to these issues, the people reposed faith in the Congress,” said Congress leader Supriya Shrinate.

Another positive takeaway from the hill state is that there is vindication for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, whose leadership had come under question after the Uttar Pradesh debacle in early 2022. Priyanka led the fight in Himachal Pradesh, holding a rally in each of the four Lok Sabha constituencies and several public meetings. In all these outings, she ensured that state leaders, who are otherwise engrossed in a bitter infighting, worked together to make the campaign a success.

The party, meanwhile, has planned to carry out a followup exercise to the yatra, which will kick off from January 26, and Priyanka will undertake a women-centric outreach programme.

For all the de-linking of the yatra from elections, it has gone through election-going states such as Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The party will hold its plenary session in Chhattisgarh, an election-going state the yatra did not pass through, in February.