It was the best one-year anniversary gift for Congress chief Rahul Gandhi - three large heartland states won under his leadership, a comeback in the electoral space that matters, his first real win in politics, and an empathetic assertion that his party and he are the main opposition to Modi's BJP for 2019.
Gandhi has been consistent in his opposition to Modi and Amit Shah and their brand of politics and he underlined it yet again in his much-delayed press conference (deferred for the MP verdict). Gandhi was gracious in the win saying that he wanted to congratulate the three outgoing Chief Ministers and that the Congress would continue with any good work or schemes that they had delivered.
Gandhi also said he had learnt from Modi what not to do in politics - while he is courteous of and about other BJP leaders, he has no such constraints with Modi and Shah. Gandhi also asserted that there would be no problems in selecting Chief Ministers (acknowledging all those reports of competing claims between Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia) to mark his control over party leaders and his organisation.
As the Madhya Pradesh photo-finish extended agonizingly to this morning, there has to be an acknowledgement of the incredible staying power of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, three-time Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, who nearly swung a record fourth term for the BJP. Chouhan is the ultimate quiet and unassuming counterpoint to Shah-Modi, the "Mama-ji" of MP who was for years immune to any sort of anti-incumbency. And in the BJP and the wider Sangh, he is considered the anthesis of Modi and Yogi brand of politics: no aggressive personal attacks and no hate rhetoric.
Chouhan is learnt to have told RSS Number 2, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, that this time around as well, it was not anti-incumbency that cost him his job but the total neglect of agriculture by the centre.
Despite all the attempts by BJP spokespersons and leaders yesterday to insulate Modi and Shah from the results, a large section of BJP leaders who have for a while been chafing against the iron grip of the duo are now venting - though still on the condition of anonymity.
A senior minister told me, "They take all the credit for the wins, lead dramatic victory processions, now they need to own this heartland rejection." This is significant because for the first time after Modi's landslide win in 2014, his supremacy in the BJP is being questioned. While most acknowledge that his personal appeal remains intact, there's talk now of whether the famed "Modi Magic" is on the wane. Modi's electoral game-changing abilities have been shrinking after demonetization and the colossal Uttar Pradesh win early last year. This was starkly visible in the Gujarat assembly results where the Congress nearly forced out the BJP.
Shah, acclaimed as "Chanakya" by a large section of the embedded media which reports his "master strokes" with breathless adoration, is now facing trouble within the BJP. "What did his panna pramukhs do? We outspent the Congress, our local leaders were strong, but he could not provide the last-mile push," a senior party leader told me.
With general elections imminent, Modi and Shah need to quickly rework their approach. They simply cannot afford discontent in the BJP caused by their undoubted arrogance and ill-advised adventures like demonetization. They also need to acknowledge that they need Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Scindia to deliver the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these states. Scindia has a fractious relationship with them and Modi and Chouhan have shared an intense but quiet rivalry dating back to their early terms as Chief Ministers.
The results are significant as they indicate that the "Ram Mandir" rhetoric and polarization which is the BJP's default mode when in electoral trouble are simply not gaining traction, and all the Yogi Adityanath hate speeches (he addressed 75 rallies) are not yielding the intended effect.
In 2014, Modi was the challenger who made promises that were full of appeal - jobs, progress, development. Now, with a full term, he is being questioned on delivery. Gandhi with his temple run has also taken the sting out of the anti-Hindu portrayal of the Congress party. The shrill personal attacks by Modi have paradoxically helped Gandhi acquire the status of the main contender.
However, the Congress, famed for its complacency, needs to now hit the ground running and work hard. Rajasthan showed that the party is fully capable of reducing a sweep to a close contest through factionalism and poor ticket selection.
These results will ensure a more cohesive opposition as BSP supremo Mayawati, after attacking the Congress, has announced that she will back it in MP. "Mayawati can't afford to be publicly seen supporting us as Shah has his most durable ally, the CBI (to prevent that). But her politics is such that she can't afford to support the BJP in UP in 2019", said a senior Congress leader to me.
2019 has begun - with all sorts of possibilities. Take nothing for granted.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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