Assembly Polls: Will Congress' Strategic Bet Pay Off on Counting Day?

This time, the Congress appears to have reduced Delhi's influence on pre-poll decisions, instead mobilising several senior leaders to each state.

New Delhi: The counting for assembly elections in four states and a Union Territory will take place on Sunday, May 2. Even though Congress is out of power in all five, it has high stakes in Assam and Kerala where it is the main opposition party challenging the incumbents.

Interestingly, in the run up to the elections in both these states, Congress president Sonia Gandhi tasked sitting chief ministers in January with the responsibility of being senior observers to oversee poll campaigns. While Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was appointed as a senior observer in Assam, his Rajasthan counterpart Ashok Gehlot was given a similar responsibility in Kerala. Sitting ministers from other Congress-ruled states were also given similar roles in West Bengal as well as Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. 

The appointment of four such groups of senior observers consisting of three leaders each, was considered to be an experiment of sorts by the party’s top leadership to boost its election campaign in states where it is currently out of power. Party leaders said that the usual norm is to send one senior observer in a poll bound state and that the choice of sitting chief ministers and state ministers is a rare move.

Whether this tweaked electoral strategy employed by Congress has borne fruit or not will be discovered when counting takes place on Sunday. One of the objectives of this strategy, party leaders said, was to mobilise more resources on the ground, reinvigorate the party cadre and to control factionalism in some state units. 

In Assam for instance, Baghel spent over a month since he took over as a senior observer, according to senior party leaders. He addressed public meetings, including those with former party chief Rahul Gandhi and with general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, took part in road shows, corner meetings and even held door to door campaigns for candidates. Like in Baghel’s state, Congress party is in a direct contest against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam.  

Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel campaigns in Assam. Photo: Twitter/@BhupeshBaghel

“Congress party gave the responsibility to senior party leaders, none less than sitting CMs. It helped in further strengthening the capacity and creating a single line of action plan. This helped us a lot in man-power resource mobilisation. The process of involvement of cadre is remarkable this time,” said Shakeel Ahmad Khan, a party MLA from Bihar who is also part of the senior observers’ group for Assam along with Baghel and former Union minister Mukul Wasnik. 

Interestingly, the senior observers along with general secretary incharge of Assam, Jitendra Singh, are known to have handled the nitty-gritty of the campaign largely on their own without much intervention from party’s central leadership. Khan added that the meeting of the party’s Central Election Committee (CEC) to decide on the list of candidates, took place in Assam and not the national capital which is usually the venue. 

Also read: Kerala Assembly Polls: Congress Pulls Out All the Stops for a ‘Do-or-Die’ Battle

Similarly in Kerala, where Congress is a key challenger to the Left Democratic Front (LDF), Gehlot oversaw election management of the party. Party leaders however said that one of the key tasks of the senior observers’ group, which included former Goa chief minister Luizinho Faleiro and former deputy chief minister of Karnataka, G. Parmeswara, was to iron out factional differences within the state unit. Maharashtra’s Nitin Raut was assigned to the joint team for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

“Earlier there used to be a single observer, now it is a group of observers. We have limited resources, AICC (All India Congress Committee) wanted to add more power to the campaign and therefore they assigned chief ministers and state ministers to these states. They will add more power to the campaign,” said B.K. Hariprasad, senior observer of the party for West Bengal.

B.K. Hariprasad at a Bengal rally. Photo: Twitter/@HariprasadBK2

Among state ministers in the group of senior observers, Maharashtra’s Nitin Raut was assigned in Tamil Nadu and Punjab’s Vijay Inder Singla was sent to West Bengal. In both the states, the team faced the challenge of ensuring smooth seat-sharing arrangements and coordination with alliance partners – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Left parties and later Indian Secular Front in West Bengal. 

Also read: Why Are Rahul Gandhi, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury Campaigning on Two Different Lines in Bengal?

“One of the key reasons for assigning senior ministers and chief ministers is to look after the resource angle in the campaign. AICC is not rich compared to its current political challengers. High profile leaders can help raise resources on the ground. One will have to wait to see what kind of impact it has when results come out,” a senior party leader involved in the campaign said requesting anonymity. 

Experts however feel that even though pitching of popular faces from incumbent states could become a talking point, it may not resolve the structural issues that the Congress is faced with. This is a high-stake election for Congress because apart from Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, it is in power on its own only in Punjab. In Maharashtra and Jharkhand, it is a junior partner in ruling alliances. 

“I think that it happened too late in the sense that the main problem Congress has been facing in Assam or elsewhere is more structural in nature. This is more of optics and could be a talking point but I am not sure of the impact it will have on ground,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University. 

“Congress has to introspect on this, the planning for such elections has to start much earlier. They got defeated in the state elections and performed poorly in Lok Sabha elections as well. It is not something that can be resolved by last moment strategies, its outcome remains to be seen but I am skeptical,” he added.

Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports on the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.