The Congress could not savour its victory in Himachal Pradesh on Thursday, stunned as it was by the outcome in Gujarat where the gigantic Narendra Modi election machine ground the Opposition to dust.
Unlike in 2017 when Rahul Gandhi took Modi head on and led the campaign himself, the party had this time relied on the local leadership quietly campaigning door-to-door to exploit the local issues. But the strategy boomeranged, allowing the media to create an impression that the Congress wasn’t fighting seriously.
A late surge did happen but the party had already lost the psychological battle.
So numbed were Congress leaders by the BJP’s complete domination in Gujarat that they refused to analyse the result, except to concede in private conversations that the projection of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as the main challenger set the stage for the BJP’s best-ever performance.
The Congress had presumed that the ground reality would render the BJP’s electoral hype irrelevant because the voters would not forget their suffering.
Memories of the Covid mayhem have not faded yet and the Congress had promised a compensation of Rs 4 lakh for every victim.
People were unhappy about high prices of petrol and cooking gas cylinders, a series of question paper leaks disrupting examinations, drug trafficking and the economic slide affecting businesses. But the Congress slipped to 17 seats from 77 and the BJP jumped to 156 from 99.
Congress veterans were astounded and many said they couldn’t find answers through political logic.
“I got numerous calls asking if EVMs were manipulated but we can’t make allegations without evidence,” a senior leader said.
One Congress candidate, Bharatbhai Veljibhai Solanki from the Gandhidham-5 constituency, tied his stole around his neck like a noose and threatened to commit suicide alleging EVM tampering.
Other leaders chose not to speak on record even as many were susicious about the extent of the BJP’s sweep. Gujarat Congress chief Jagdish Thakor said the party accepted the people’s mandate.
The Congress cannot blame communal polarisation and diversionary tactics this time as two former state presidents — Arjun Modhwadia and Bharatsinh Solanki — had formally said the elections had been fought on real issues.
Most of the party’s strong candidates lost and only a few seniors like Arjun Modhwadia, Amit Chavda, Tushar Chowdhary, Jignesh Mevani and rising tribal leader Anant Patel won.
The Congress will now learn the hard lesson that issues troubling the people alone cannot unseat the government, and that organisational muscle is needed to counter a cadre-based party like the BJP.
The Congress kept losing MLAs and senior leaders to the BJP and was knocked out of rural Gujarat which had traditionally supported the party. When central in-charge Rajiv Satav died, the party took months to find a replacement.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was given charge of elections months before polling but got distracted by squabbles in his home state.
While spokespersons Pawan Khera and Supriya Shrinate were sent to campaign, most senior leaders were ignored and the new president, Mallikarjun Kharge, started showing interest at a late stage.
Priyanka Gandhi, who addressed several meetings in Himachal, refused to campaign in Gujarat despite requests. Kharge was unwilling to discuss Gujarat on Thursday, saying “defeat and victory are part of democracy”.
Rahul said: “We accept the verdict of the people of Gujarat with humility. We will restructure our party, work hard and continue the fight in favour of the people according to the ideals of this country.”
Rahul had promised to restructure the Delhi unit to take on the AAP years ago.
The victory in Himachal has come because of a robust party organisation and the hard work of local leaders who capitalised on anti-incumbency.
There is now a tussle for the chief minister’s post and immature handling could pave the way for the BJP’s intervention.
The win though was a morale booster.
Central observers are being sent to ensure the chief minister is chosen on Friday.