NEW DELHI: “Two steps forward to a Congress Mukht Bharat” is how BJP President Amar Shah interpreted the results of the five Assembly elections that placed his party in government in Assam. At his press conference after the results, Shah said that at least after these results no one would go in alliance with the Congress now, “whoever has, they have been defeated” he laughed, as he wound up the meet.

It was clear from the campaign to these elections that for the top BJP leadership, the Congress remained as the major foe with Prime Minister Narendra Modi throwing caution to the wind to lead the attack on Congress President Sonia Gandhi himself. The BJP stepped up the attack, with Shah now confirming that the intention was to achieve an India free of the Congress party in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, that would then clinch the remaining needful at the time.

The BJP/RSS is working systematically to this plan. In its assessment its direct foe is the Congress, mainly because that is the pan India space it wants to occupy. And can do so if it edges out the Congress party decisively. It has for this phase---that is till- 2019---decided to target the Congress through a systematic multi-pronged strategy designed to keep the party on its toes. As one senior opposition leader said, “induce if not fear, then at least fatigue.”

One element of this is through the re-writing of history. By usurping what the BJP sees as Congress icons like Gandhi and Ambedkar as its own with deviations from the original of course; by erasing the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru as was evident recently in the Rajasthan textbook in schools; and the like.

And secondly, through a political strategy that places the current Nehru-Gandhi family at the centre of the attack that is constant and consistent with salvos being fired from several directions on a host of issues---Dynasty, Italian descent, corruption, minority appeasement to name just a few. It is counting on the inability of the Congress leadership to withstand the pressure, with a small indication evident recently during the polls when Rahul Gandhi cancelled a campaign visit to Puducherry following death threats from unidentified sources. This is a real fear in the Congress First family that has lost two leaders---Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi---to terror attacks.

The inherent weakness of the Congress top brass in determining strategy was evident in these Assembly polls, particularly Assam. There was in fact an absence of strategy, despite reports from the ground that the anti-incumbency factor against Tarun Gogoi and the party was immense. Congress president Sonia Gandhi made no move to replace the ailing Gogoi with a younger, more dynamic leader; with the party machinery in the state totally inept and unable to counter the strong BJP campaign. This despite the fact that the BJP had moved into the state for the Lok Sabha polls, and had stayed there since, working systematically with the RSS cadres to find new leaders (in this case a Congress dissident who was not accommodated by the party top brass) and push through an anti-minority agenda camouflaged with the slogan of development where and when necessary.

The BJP preoccupation with the Congress, and its resolve to ensure its defeat in successive Assembly elections in the run up to the parliamentary polls, was clear from the responses of its leaders after the results were out. Shah and Ram Madhav both exulted in the Congress defeat with the former of course making it clear that these results had taken the BJP two steps forward in its aim of ridding India of the Congress.

The question thus is no longer, is that the aim as that has been clearly defined by Shah. So the question that now remains, can the BJP achieve this goal? To analyse this one will need to examine the results of these elections for the Congress, and are these as bad as the BJP is making it out to be?

The Congress has indeed lost Assam, but there is some slight chewable fact in its claim that this was after 15 years in office with anti-incumbency at its peak. It has improved its position in West Bengal where it was in alliance with the Left, and has emerged as the second largest party in the state. An interesting climb up as clearly the people who voted for the alliance reposed more trust in the Congress than in the Left, for this election at least. In Kerala it remains the principal opposition, but again given the trajectory of Kerala polls, it was calculated to lose this election. It remains the principal opposition here, as was the LDF in the last state Assembly. In Tamil Nadu the Congress has got more seats than in the last elections, and is in alliance with the DMK that has improved its strength in the Assembly considerably. In Puducherry the Congress party is in the lead, and set to form the government.

In contrast the BJP has won Assam. It has improved its position slightly in West Bengal but remains far below the Congress party. In Kerala too it has slumped to one seat as against the Congress 47. In Tamil Nadu the BJP has not secured a single seat. In Puducherry the Left opened its account, but the BJP could not.

The point to understand is that whether this defeat in Assam and Kerala unrecoverable for the Congress. The last does not seem so, given the history of state elections in Kerala. In Assam it will depend entirely on the Congress ability to change the leadership, bring in a more dynamic set of young leaders, work towards a strong campaign to counter the BJP in the state from today, not tomorrow; and play the role of a vibrant and responsible opposition. This could be a tall order given the Congress inability to be present on the ground although some local election results from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi seem to have given it some hope.

Shah linked the opposition by the Congress in Parliament to its defeat on the ground. While this is an exaggeration for the state elections, it is clear that the BJP will be pinning the Congress opposition in the Rajya Sabha as ‘anti development’. The Congress has been unable to find a suitable rejoinder and remains defensive at best.

The Congress party today remains in power in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and is in direct contest---without regional parties---with the BJP in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. It is in these states that the Congress will have to give a winning counter if it is to survive as a potent political force, as coalition strategy might bring it some extra seats as in Bihar where it allied with the Janata Dal(U), West Bengal, Tamil Nadu but will not ensure long term political survival.

In other words the Congress itself will determine its existence, or its fade out from political memory as the BJP would like to ensure. To stay in the fight, and to improve its position in the coming elections it will have to:

Elect a party president who is the sole authority. This division of labour between Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi might help the old guard, but it delays decision making, leads to wrong decisions, and makes for a confused set up that the state leaders find difficult to handle. For instance while Sonia Gandhi was not averse to Amarinder Singh taking over the state party in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi was said to be opposed. And although finally a decision was taken in favour of Singh, it was late in the day, led to severe factionalism within the party and from the possibility of a good performance the party is said to have lost ground.

Revive inner party democracy. The Congress party is not elected. It is nominated. There was some effort when Rahul Gandhi first came to power to make members and hold elections but the initiative has come to nought. Given Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s larger ignorance about the state workers and leaders, they remain dependent on the central party managers advise, that often feeds vested interests but does little for the Congress on the ground. In the Lok Sabha elections for instance Rahul Gandhi was credited with distributing tickets on the basis of such advice, to candidates who were not even known in the mohallas let alone the entire constituency.

Revive the front organisations such as the Youth Congress and the Sewa Dal. Both constitute cadres for the Congress and in the past have helped the party during the elections. Both lie in disarray, de-motivated.

It is only after revving up the Congress organisation, that the party president can then ensure that a team of dynamic younger leaders----and that the party now has many of-----is deputed for each state. There is need for an open door policy, interaction with the people, campaigns, party meetings, et al to bring the Congress out of air conditioned rooms on to the streets.

The BJP is clear in its strategy, and its ambition. It has the people to achieve the end by any means. Shah has sounded the bugle against the Congress, it is now for the Congress to respond.