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“This is like fighting the Kargil war, I will be either a glorious martyr or win the battle for India” Sushma Swaraj had thundered on August 18th 1999, the last day for filing nominations for the Bellary Lok Sabha elections. What had preceded that statement was a highly secretive game of cloak and dagger played by the Congress party and their first family. 

Sonia Gandhi had just entered active politics and was apparently so paranoid about her election that she had created an elaborate camouflage around her political debut which was almost like a Bollywood thriller movie plot. On August 17th 1999, Sonia with her political secretary Vincent George and Gulam Nabhi Azad had flown to Hyderabad in a commercial flight. At the Hyderabad airport Azad quipped to the media, “if she was to contest from Karnataka, why would we be here in Andhra Pradesh?” in order to mislead the media and the BJP. To maintain this charade, a 7-seater airplane was parked in Hyderabad and the civil aviation authorities were informed that its charted course would be towards Cuddapah. Congress friendly journalists meanwhile were spreading rumours that Sonia would be contesting from Medak.

This great game of deception was being played so that the BJP would have no time to put up a strong candidate against Mrs. Gandhi as there would be only a few hours left for nominations. After her nomination from Bellary on the 17th of August, there were those predictable media stories about how Sonia Gandhi would energize the whole of South India and how Congress would reap the benefits in the neighboring states as well.

It was in fact, that wily political genius Ramakrishna Hegde, the then Commerce Minister in the Vajpayee cabinet who talked to Sushma Swaraj in the middle of the night and convinced her to take on Mrs. Gandhi in the Bellary battle. Indeed, that “Kargil” line of a glorious martyr that Swaraj used so effectively throughout that campaign was also the brainchild of Hegde. And the result? Sonia Gandhi barely managed to defeat Sushma Swaraj by about 6% lead even as BJP established itself as a big force in Karnataka politics. In the neighboring Andhra Pradesh too, BJP won an unprecedented 7 MP seats while Congress was reduced to a mere five.

Today, once again the Gandhis are paranoid. Rahul is facing headwinds in Amethi and has chosen a second safe seat in the minority dominated Wayanad LS seat of Kerala. Once again, we are hearing the familiar stories from Congress friendly journalists about how Rahul Gandhi is more popular in south India and how Congress would reap the benefits in at least 3 states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. And once again, the ground realities are starkly different.

Rahul Gandhi’s electoral trip to Wayanad is unlikely to stem the rot within the grand old party of India. If anything, this move has played straight into BJP’s hands because of two big reasons and will further hurt the Congress party’s chances in 2019.

  1. Firstly, it has created doubts in the minds of voters in Amethi where BJP’s Smriti Irani is not only putting up a strong fight but also has nurtured the constituency for the last 5 years. In the normal course of this election, Rahul Gandhi might have still won this seat with ease, but by now having picked up a second seat, he has given the fence-sitters of Amethi a big reason not to vote for him.
  2. Secondly, by choosing a minority dominated Wayanad, Rahul Gandhi and Congress have unwittingly spurred a Hindu-Muslim undercurrent to this general election. In the next 20 odd days, by whence Wayanad goes to polls, there will be virtually daily news stories and messages of how Congress has tied up with Muslim fundamentalist elements like SDPI and the Jamaat to get Rahul elected from Wayanad which will in turn agitate average Hindu voters across India.

 

Ever since the December assembly elections after which Congress party has managed to form governments in three states, there has been this new narrative among a certain section of pundits that the Congress party is in an upswing while BJP is struggling. Reality is actually the opposite. Because Congress managed to form three state governments, it has acquired a new-found arrogance and is unwilling to accommodate smaller allies which in turn would have prevented the splitting of opposition votes.

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In the 2014 anti-Congress wave, the grand old party managed to win 44 Lok Sabha seats spread across 5 different zones. These 44 MP districts are important demographics that defied the overwhelming Modi wave and overcame the anti-Congress sentiments. We therefore have been specially tracking these districts in four out of five zones over the last 2 weeks to understand the voter behavior here after 5 years of the 2014 epoch.

To our surprise, what we discovered in this tracker is that Congress party’s woes have only increased in these five years. Except for one zone of Kerala, Congress’s support has further declined in 4 out of 5 zones from where Congress had won 36 of its 44 MP seats in 2014 (the eight seats of UP, Bihar, Punjab & Haryana were not part of this tracker). In the lone zone of Kerala, Congress is either maintaining or slightly improving from its 2014 performance – thereby Rahul Gandhi’s candidature may not add much to the party’s performance threshold in that state.

In the Karnataka zone where Congress had managed to win a maximum of 9 seats in 2014, there is secular decline in support to the party across the 8 districts. In fact, the situation is such that apart from the Bangalore Rural parliamentary constituency, Congress is facing extremely tough battles in all the other 7 seats. For instance, take the case of Gulbarga LS seat which is represented by Mallikarjun Kharge the leader of the UPA in parliament that is seeing a tougher fight this time than in 2014. Four strong Congress leaders and former ministers have deserted the party and are now helping BJP defeat Kharge in Gulbarga district. As of today, the only positive factor for Kharge is that he is outspending BJP by almost 2:1 in this otherwise uphill battle of Gulbarga. Similarly, Veerappa Moily, the former CM of Karnataka who had won by a whisker in 2014 is today facing a do-or-die battle despite JDS being a coalition partner. As per our tracker, Gauribidnur, Yelahanka & Devanahalli assembly segments will decide whether BJP can snatch this seat from the Congress party.

The eastern zone consisting of Bengal, Assam and the North-East where Congress had 12 seats in 2014 is possibly the worst performing zone for Congress today. The grand old party has lost a whopping 10% in this zone while BJP has gained 12% since 2014. In the Malda-Raiganj belt of Bengal, there is massive polarization today which is all set to sink the Ghani Khan Choudhary family here, even as TMC is in deeply vulnerable position. In Assam and the North-East, Congress is virtually fighting to stay relevant in the longer run as 2019 is beyond reach for them.

The fourth zone is what we have termed as the central zone consisting of Maharashtra, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Considering that Congress had performed pretty well in two of these states just 3 months ago, we were expecting a solid performance by the party here. Surprisingly, Congress position has not improved at all as compared to 2014 even in this region, but what may give it a bit of solace to Congress is that BJP’s position has marginally declined here. Yet, this is the one zone where unusually large proportion of undecided voters are present who could turn towards the leading party in the final days of electioneering.

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Over the last one week, we have also been tracking voters’ perception about the much touted Congress NYAY scheme of promising 72000 rupees per annum to the poorest 20% of the populace. It has slowly begun to catch on in terms of awareness among the masses, but has not yet made a deep impact. In fact, as more and more qualitative data keeps coming in, the apparent contradictions are coming to the fore. For instance, there are virtually no takers for this NYAY scheme in Congress ruled states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh as voters tend to believe that there is a big gap between what Congress promises and what it delivers. Even in the east, it is not getting any traction whatsoever. As of today, the NYAY scheme is only getting some traction in heartland states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Unless Congress runs a massive campaign making the NYAY scheme as the sole issue on which it wants to fight 2019, this poll promise may simply fizzle out by mid-April. In fact, the NYAY scheme of 72000/annum poll promise is the only thing standing between Congress and total decimation below the nadir of 2014.