Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress presidential election candidate, addressing a press conference Image Credit: ANI

As the dust settles on the Gujarat and Himachal election results in India, the bottom line is this: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most formidable political force in the country going into the 2024 general elections but is not invincible in states, as the Congress win in Himachal Pradesh clearly shows.

The Himachal results have come as a huge relief to the Congress but the big picture is fraught with many problems for the grand old party.

The Gujarat debacle is a huge setback for the Congress, a state that sends 26 MPs into parliament. The party has come up with its worst ever performance with just 17 seats and a vote share that fell from 41% to 27%.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) played spoiler this time, eating straight in to the Congress vote share and getting 13% of the vote. The fact that voters in Gujarat did not see the Congress as an obvious alternative to the BJP should worry the party.

What is truly bewildering is why the Congress gave up on Gujarat and threw in the towel even before the polls. They weren’t visible on the ground, their top leaders largely stayed away, Rahul Gandhi has been busy with Bharat Jodo Yatra and campaigned here only for a day, while on the ground, low morale and lack of leadership hit the party badly.

This is even more baffling given that the party actually put up a good fight in the 2017 polls and restricted the BJP to 99 seats.

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The Himachal win, while a silver lining for the Congress, actually holds little comfort for the party. Despite anti-incumbency and factionalism, the difference in the Congress and BJP’s vote share is barely a percent. The absence of the AAP here is a key factor too.

And the state has a tradition of throwing governments out in each poll. But the Congress also ran a decent campaign in the hill state.

There were a number of rallies by Priyanka Gandhi and locally, they have strong leaders on the ground who campaigned in their districts effectively. It proves that having an effective leadership on the ground makes a difference.

Ceding space to AAP

And let’s not forget Delhi and the municipal elections where the AAP won big, followed by the BJP. The Congress sank to its worst ever performance of 9 wards. The party which once dominated the politics of the national capital has totally ceded space to the AAP and ensured that future contests for now remain largely between the BJP and the AAP.

The road ahead is tough. There are crucial state elections coming up ahead of the Lok Sabha polls and the Congress remains in a precarious position. In Rajasthan for example, it is plagued by nasty infighting between chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. A row that the party has allowed to fester and one which may very well blow up in its face.

The Congress also has a big problem as who to project as a challenger to Modi. Rahul Gandhi simply hasn’t cut it. The AAP has Kejriwal and while much of their Gujarat campaign was high on hype, they are at least taking the fight to the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi’s pan-India, while admirable, cannot be held in some parallel universe where winning elections is not the goal. Winning is important for any political party’s survival and to push its ideological goals.

The Congress is down but not out yet. Unless the party does a complete overhaul soon, until it has the hunger to win elections, it is on a path to irrelevance where others will fill the void.