After the close contest between the BJP and the Congress in the Gujarat elections, there is intense speculation in the media on the prospects for the 2019 general elections. The BJP remains the favourite but the key, in the run-up to this important election will be the eight assembly elections that are to take place in 2018. The key states will be Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Congress is the key to a united Opposition

With the BJP in control of as many as 19 states, the Opposition has a formidable challenge. Vinod Sharma, political editor, Hindustan Times notes that the 2014 victory of the Narendra Modi led BJP was a defeat “of the entire secular side of the political divide: the Congress, the Left and regional forces such as the SP, BSP, RJD and the JD(U).

“Exceptions to the humiliating rout were the TMC, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK. The last two didn’t join the NDA but from a distance, they consciously flirted with the BJP.”

In the current scenario, a pan-India and anti-BJP front “won’t happen unless the Congress picks up strength — and be accepted as the pivot of the anti-BJP wheel. The ground rule is that alliances, direct or proximate, need a sizeable core to succeed.”

And for this to happen, the Congress needs electoral victories in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Victories in couple of these states will bolster the Congress’ challenge as a national alternative.

Sharma writs this “possibly can achieve that by replicating the Punjab leadership model — where Amarinder Singh and Navjot Sidhu symbolised experience and youth. The strategy will contain in-fighting and show the Congress as the party of the present and the future.”

And of course, a strong narrative will be needed that should focus on rising unemployment among the youth in urban hubs, emphasis on “farm distress, given that the states headed for polls are overwhelmingly rural.”

The dont’s, according to Sharma are “No locking of horns on the BJP’s brand of Hindutva; instead offering policy alternatives bonding the religious majority’s aspirations with life issues that are troubling youth across societal divides. Call it the Hindutva of hope if you like.”

2018 assembly elections: Cong’s prospects better but not without challenges

Analysing electoral patterns and trends to anticipate electoral outcomes, Sanjay Kumar (professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) writes that “Congress’ electoral prospects in 2018 seem to be better as compared to the recent past. The Congress can hope to gain from the anti-incumbency mood, which may be prevailing against the BJP government in three states i.e. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. A small swing of votes in favour of the Congress in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh can give victory to the Congress, though in Rajasthan it would need a much bigger swing to tilt the electoral balance in its favour. The Congress would be at the receiving end only in Karnataka but even there, the BJP might need a big swing in its favour to be able to dislodge Congress from power. A reasonably good performance of the Congress in recently held Assembly elections in Gujarat has enthused the party and it hopes to capitalise on this mood. It also hopes to gain electorally from rural unrest (farmers’ crisis), which is visible in the states going to polls this year more so because these states are largely rural. By these parameters, it is reasonable for the Congress to hope for a better 2018, compared electorally to the recent past.”

Going by the way votes are distributed between the Congress and the BJP, Kumar write “the former can manage to win election in Chhattisgarh by a small 2 per cent swing of votes and by 5-6 per cent swing of votes in MP in its favour. But in the absence of a formidable state leadership, the Congress may even find this difficult. The Congress needs a much bigger swing — may be more than 8 per cent votes — to win the elections in Rajasthan. The same holds true for the BJP which would need more than 10 per cent swing of votes in its favour to win in Karnataka….”

But it may not be easy to to defeat the BJP in its stronghold of MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In fact, holding on to power in Karnataka may prove to be a tedious task for the Congress. Even the anti-incumbency may have limited impact considering the the way BJP won Gujarat for the sixth time in a row.

Even the revival of the Congress in rural Gujarat “is being over interpreted as its vote share in rural Gujarat increased only by 1.3% while in urban Gujarat it increased by 2.3 per cent and in semi-urban constituencies the voteshare increased by 5.1 per cent. The Congress still trailed behind the BJP even in rural Gujarat by one per cent votes. Yes, one gets visible signs of the farmers’ unhappiness with the state government in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but an assumption that their unhappiness would make them vote against the BJP may be an overstatement…”

The bottom line is that “voters are unlikely to shift towards the Congress only because in a bi-polar contest in these states they would have no choices than to vote for Congress, if unhappy with the BJP government. If the Congress needs to put up a challenge for the BJP, it needs to change its election strategy.”