Political pundits took Rahul Gandhi seriously for the first time in 2009 after he led the Congress party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh and managed to double the party's vote-share, winning 21 out of the 80 seats in the state. This could be a game-changer for the Congress, said the analysts, UP is the doorway to Delhi, and Rahul has managed to find the key.
Of course, five years later, the Congress was all but wiped out. Only the Gandhis retained their Lok Sabha seats, and the party's vote share dropped to its lowest ever. But Rahul's early success explains his soft corner for UP. It also explains why the Congress has unleashed its potential star, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to charm voters in the eastern part of the state.
The truth is that Priyanka and Rahul are wasted on UP. The Congress needs about 120-130 seats to be able to lead a multi-party coalition government at the centre. And it doesn't need UP for that. Instead, Rahul needs to shift focus on to the states where his party is in a direct contest with the BJP and not up against multiple opponents like in Uttar Pradesh where the Congress has been excluded from the alliance between Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. Key amongst these are the three Hindi belt states the Congress won in December last year.
Let's start with Rajasthan. If one adds up the votes in each assembly constituency and converts them into Lok Sabha leads, the Congress is ahead in 14 of the 25 seats in the state. It is also within striking distance of the BJP in another 5 seats, where the saffron party leads by less than 20,000 votes. If Rahul can spend time in these constituencies and convert them for his party, the Congress could end up with as many as 19 seats in Rajasthan, where it won no seats at all in 2014.
Similar calculations for Madhya Pradesh show the Congress is ahead in 13 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Again, the BJP leads by less than 20,000 votes in another three seats. Hard political work in these seats could push the Congress ahead of the BJP.
The Congress is in a position to sweep Chhattisgarh, winning nine of the 11 seats in the state. Add that to the potential seats in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and the Congress has an outside chance of winning as many as 44 of 65 seats in these three Hindi heartland states. That is exactly what it won in the entire country in 2014.
There are three other big states which have elected new governments in the past two years: Punjab, Gujarat and Karnataka. If one translates the assembly numbers into Lok Sabha seats, the Congress has a good chance to win seven of 26 seats in Gujarat and it is less than 20,000 votes behind the BJP in another three seats. Rahul will need to focus his energies on these 10 seats to make a significant dent in the BJP's fortress.
The Congress is best placed in Punjab, where it could win nine of 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state. This is Amarinder Singh territory and all that Rahul needs to do is to let the Captain call the shots and win the state for the party.
In some ways, the Karnataka polls last summer were the most important in Rahul Gandhi's political career. Even though the Congress was the larger party, it shed its traditional hubris and offered to back HD Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister. Rahul proved that he had come of age by moving faster than Amit Shah, the grandmaster of cobbling together post-poll alliances to form governments.
On paper, and in Excel sheets, the Congress-JDS alliance is unbeatable. Together, they won 56 percent of the popular vote in the Karnataka assembly polls, nearly 20 percentage points ahead of the BJP. That put the alliance ahead in 22 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Of these 'winning' seats, the Congress is contesting 15 and the JDS 7.
Now pause and add up the numbers in these six states that we have looked at - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Punjab and Karnataka. The Congress could win as many as 68 of the 132 Lok Sabha seats here. It won just 15 seats in these states in 2014.
If opinion polls are to be believed, the Congress should also do well in Jharkhand and Assam. It could get anywhere between 10 to 15 seats in these two states, which account for a total of 28 Lok Sabha seats. Add that to the states we have already discussed, and the Congress has a chance of winning 75-80 seats of the 160 here.
That leaves 383 Lok Sabha seats in the rest of India. Out of these, the Congress is a strong player in Kerala with its 20 seats and Maharashtra which has 48, where opinion polls show it winning 7-9 seats up from the two it took in 2014. In the DMK, it has a strong alliance partner in Tamil Nadu with its 39 seats. It could win a seat or two by riding on the RJD in Bihar. The Congress also has a significant presence in pockets of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Haryana, Delhi and in the North Eastern states.
The Congress needs to identify another 70-odd seats out of these 383 where it has a chance of winning. It needs to convert 40-45 of them to reach the magic 120 number. In other words, the Congress needs to concentrate all its energy, money and strategic planning on 230-odd seats.
And that means, not just Rahul, but Priyanka too, has to forget UP. In the Congress party's scheme of things, it simply doesn't matter.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels. He now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India.)
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