India’s continuing economic travails have raised fresh doubts about the BJP’s ability to cast economic renewal as its dominant narrative for the 2019 general election. As the party builds an alternative framing around the promise of a “New India”, the once-dejected Congress party senses an opportunity.
The Congress’ strategy—best described as high-risk, high-reward—rests not on its projection of a coherent vision for the country or the projection of a dynamic national leader but rather a high-decibel rejection of the status quo.
The party’s evolving game plan has three principal components.
The first is to double down on its criticism of the BJP for engaging in cynical majoritarian politics that is divisive—and potentially destructive—to the idea of India. The Congress will portray the BJP as a malign force that seeks to divide and rule India’s diverse populace while attempting to impose a homogenising vision of who is truly “Indian”.
Why else would the BJP pick a firebrand like Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of India’s most populous state, try to impose Hindi at the cost of Tamil or Telugu, or persistently sound the drumbeat of Ram Mandir, it will ask. The BJP is systematically polarising India, the Congress will argue, and no minority is safe—linguistic, religious, or otherwise.
The second component is to hit the BJP hard on the economy, the government’s supposed calling card. The strategy is to paint a portrait of an economy that has been slowing consistently since 2016, notwithstanding the BJP’s statistical jugglery. The ultimate goal of the Congress’ economic message is to force a repeat of the BJP’s 2004 “India Shining” moment, when the Vajpayee government was vilified for being out of touch with the aam aadmi. For the BJP, the ghosts of 2004 still loom large, which explains why Rahul Gandhi’s “suit boot ki sarkar” jibe hit the ruling party where it hurts.
On the economy, the Congress will harp on two frailties: rural distress and the lack of jobs. For the Congress, what it would itself do differently is irrelevant for the moment; what matters more is what the BJP is unable to deliver. On demonetisation and GST, the Congress has chosen to play a more nuanced game. Wary of the tag of being in cahoots with black money hoarders, the Congress will focus on the botched implementation of demonetisation. On GST, the Congress can hardly run against the idea given that it developed the scheme and later helped pass it into law, but it will accuse the BJP of mishandling the design and rollout.
Congress will argue that these first two elements are not unrelated: when Plan A failed (reviving the economy), the BJP executed a bait-and-switch by focusing on Plan B (polarisation).
The third and final component is to arrange political marriages of convenience; these are pacts not between friends but between enemies of enemies. The centerpiece of this strategy is the formation of a grand opposition coalition—the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—in Uttar Pradesh that would create a mathematical juggernaut (at least on paper). The Bihar triumph of Mahagathbandan 2015—in which the JD(U), RJD, and Congress fought in tandem— is the template.
In West Bengal, the Congress is eyeing a possible alliance with the Trinamool Congress. In Tamil Nadu, it hopes to take advantage of the disarray within the ruling AIADMK to tie with the DMK to fill the leadership vacuum. In the key heartland states — Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan — where the contest is between the Congress and the BJP, it hopes to be the beneficiary of anti-incumbency. Given the virtual clean sweep that the BJP managed in 2014 (winning 88 of 91 seats in these four states), the Congress believes that the only direction to go is up.
The ultimate aim of this strategy is to keep the BJP tally under 200 seats, a number below which all bets are off. In the most favourable scenario, an unwieldy opposition forms a government with the help of erstwhile NDA allies who have chafed under the BJP’s iron grip. The next best scenario for the opposition is a hobbled BJP that is strong enough to form a government, but is forced to rein in (or even sideline) Modi.
Will this new strategy work? There are myriad reasons to be sceptical. Stitching together a discrete series of anti-BJP coalitions is no easy task. The Congress attempted this in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections but failed to bring the BSP into the fold. The Congress leadership hopes that Mayawati, facing political irrelevance, has learned her lesson. In Bihar, the Congress’ best-laid plans are in shambles after Nitish Kumar patched up with the BJP. Even though the BJP’s recent decision to manage ground operations in all 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar might give Nitish a bit of buyer’s remorse, another switch might be more than his diminished credibility can handle.
But the Congress has not yet addressed the two existential crises May 2014 laid bare: the twin absence of strong leadership and a clear vision for the future. Rahul Gandhi’s well-received appearances in the US cannot change the fact that the Congress still has no clarity on the general who will lead it into battle. Its nascent strategy also offers no affirmative agenda, resting instead on a referendum on the incumbent. How precisely would the Congress solve the jobs crisis if it were in power? The silence is deafening.
Furthermore, the leaderless opposition must go head-to-head with the most popular Indian leader in decades, whose personal favourability ratings have yet to sag under the weight of ailing economic numbers. At every opportunity, Modi has outfoxed the opposition. Waiting in interminable bank queues would seem like a humiliating hardship, but Modi skillfully portrayed it as every citizen’s civic duty. His political savvy is coupled with an organisation that is building roots under Amit Shah’s tutelage. While the Congress has marginally narrowed the social media gap, it is still gaping.
It is now clear that there is no grand reorganisation of the Congress underway. There is no evidence of an ideological rethink that a stunning electoral debacle like 2014 should have prompted. And the ambiguity continues on whether Rahul is all in or half-out. Instead, the Congress is devising a rearguard action to prevent the BJP from returning to power at all costs. Put another way, it is trying to make lemonade out of lemons.