Congress kept its ear and feet to the ground to script a remarkable resurgence

Coming back to power at Centre is no longer a distant dream for the party

India Election Revival mode: Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at Congress headquarters in Delhi | AP

For the Congress, and to a great extent the other parties in the INDIA alliance as well, the most memorable sound of the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections would be “khata khat”. Rahul Gandhi first uttered it in a public meeting in Anupgarh in Rajasthan on April 11, ahead of the first phase of polling. Talking about the Congress’s poll promise of giving Rs8,500 a month to women of poor families, he said the money would land “khata khat” into their accounts, month after month.

With the Congress emerging as a much bigger force in the Lok Sabha, one shy of the three-digit mark, the result is seen as a validation of Rahul’s leadership.

Khata khat” soon took on a life of its own, with party workers cheering in anticipation during Rahul’s speeches when he was about to say it. Allies adopted it and remodelled it. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav added a line saying the voters would ensure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party would be out of power “fata fat” (quickly). Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav added his own twist: “Mahaul tana tan, BJP safa chat” (the ambience is exhilarating and it shows the BJP will be wiped out). Modi, too, joined the party, saying “the INDIA bloc will break up khata khat”.

The poll pledge was in alignment with the Congress’s assessment that livelihood issues such as unemployment and inflation were important on the ground and would come into play in the absence of any other overarching sentiment. It conveyed to the voters the idea that the Congress’s priority was the underprivileged who are the majority of the population in contrast to what it claimed was the scenario under the Modi rule that fostered the prosperity of a chosen few.

With the Congress emerging as a much bigger force in the Lok Sabha, one shy of the three-digit mark, the result is seen as a validation of Rahul’s leadership. In fact, the Rahul that this election saw was a project that had begun in October 2022, when he had started his Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 4,000-kilometre walkathon from Kanyakumari to Srinagar.

The Congress had long been struggling to communicate its stand and its policies effectively to the people. It was always felt that it came up short in countering the aggressive communication machinery of the BJP. The Congress has also often complained that the mainstream media was not giving the party its due space. The Bharat Jodo Yatra was a move crafted to deal with this communications deficit and a last ditch effort to reach out to the people. It also sought to fix Rahul’s image as a non-serious politician.

A second edition of the yatra, from Manipur to Maharashtra, was launched closer to the elections, and it set the stage for the framing of the party’s main talking points in these elections, the five NYAYs and 25 guarantees that dealt with livelihood issues, farmers’ distress and social justice. Also, a key feature of the Congress campaign was bringing the Constitution to the centre of the election discourse. Rahul carried a small hardbound copy of the Constitution with him to all his public meetings, and holding up the book, alleged that the BJP was planning to change the Constitution in its third term. This complemented his promise of conducting a caste census to give 90 per cent of the population of the country their due, and the entire exercise projected Rahul as a leader whose heart beat for the poor and the underprivileged.

INDIA-ELECTION/ Anchor role: Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge | Reuters

The pro-poor stance, the social justice plank and the idea of saving the Constitution formed the crux of the Congress’s manifesto drafted by a committee headed by P. Chidambaram, a veteran of many manifestos. The manifesto, or the Nyay Patra, focused on the people’s issues with pledges of cash transfer to women of poor families, jobs for the youth, minimum support price for farmers, a universal free health care, and a national caste census. It spoke about safeguarding the Constitution and undoing the alleged damage done to the democratic framework by the BJP government in the past ten years.

Chidambaram had told THE WEEK shortly after the launch of the manifesto that his priority was to ensure that it was credible. “The leader speaks what is doable, what has been done, what will be done, and people will assess it. People no longer have unquestioning faith in any promise. They have critical faith in every promise,” he said.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, armed with qualities that have defined his decades-long political career, played the anchor role. He worked in tandem with Rahul, and they complemented each other. Kharge ensured that Rahul had the freedom to be the lead campaigner for the party and articulate its stand on various issues, and he took up the job of smoothening the creases within the organisation. And both were unflinching in their attack on the BJP and the RSS.

There was the mighty challenge of running the campaign while the party faced a major resource crunch. In the initial phases of polling, it had to cut down on outdoor publicity. “The Modi government tied the hands and feet of the Congress and the rest of the opposition and said you can now cross the sea. And the opposition did it. The people of India untied our hands and feet,” said Congress leader Gurdeep Singh Sappal.

Kharge was also at the helm in keeping the INDIA alliance together as it made an optimistic beginning in April 2023 when he made the first moves and hosted Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Nationalist Congress Party (SP) chief Sharad Pawar at his residence in Delhi. He dealt patiently with regional leaders when their conflicting interests threatened to jeopardise the unity project. It was a challenging task to guide the alliance towards workable seat sharing adjustments amid crises such as Nitish, one of the key architects of the bloc, leaving the alliance and Mamata declaring her party would go it alone in West Bengal. But Kharge was guided by the principle that the Congress had to stoop to conquer and he did not allow the seat sharing talks to be derailed by some adverse statements. And the party contested the least number of seats in a Lok Sabha election this time―328.

It won 99 of them. And the INDIA alliance got 233 seats. Not enough to form the government, but it was a defeat that felt very much like victory. It was a do-or-die battle for the Congress after its disastrous performance in 2014 and 2019, when it won just 44 and 52 seats, respectively―the numbers were not even good enough to claim the position of the leader of the opposition. A bigger achievement was restricting the BJP to 240 seats, well short of the majority mark of 272.

“The mandate is against Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said Pramod Tiwari, deputy leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “Earlier, the BJP had a good majority. Now, the BJP under Modi’s leadership has failed to achieve the majority figure and is dependent on allies.”

The Congress has almost doubled its tally from 2019, and that means an enhanced standing in the opposition grouping. The party has improved its performance in direct contests against the BJP, and won seats in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan and Haryana, where it was wiped out in the last election. Its partnership with the Samajwadi Party did much better than expected, and although the real hero of the outcome was Akhilesh, the campaign of Rahul and AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was received well by the people.

The party has emerged as the single largest in Maharashtra, and its allies, Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, have emerged victorious in the electoral battle to decide the real Shiv Sena and the real NCP. The alliance improved or more or less maintained its tally in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Jharkhand, Telangana, Karnataka and Punjab. In Assam, Gaurav Gogoi’s victory in an extremely tough fight in Jorhat was heartening.

The Congress won both Inner Manipur and Outer Manipur Lok Sabha seats, and Jairam Ramesh, AICC general secretary in charge of communications, described it as a tribute to Rahul’s visit to the state in June 2023 in the middle of the ethnic conflict and beginning the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from Imphal in January this year.

It was in Bihar and Delhi that the INDIA alliance met with its biggest disappointments. Although the numbers of the grouping went up in Bihar, it did not inflict any major damage to the NDA. In Delhi, the Congress-AAP tie-up failed to make an impact, and the expectation that the arrest of Kejriwal would result in sympathy votes did not materialise.

For the Congress, there is now the satisfaction of registering some remarkable wins across the country and dealing the BJP a sobering blow. Bigger than that should be knowing that coming back to power at the centre is no longer a distant dream.