NEW DELHI (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Can the collapse of the three-day-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka mark a turnaround in Rahul Gandhi-led Congress party ahead of fresh national elections early next year?
Ever since the party was voted out of power in India after a decade-long unbroken rule in the last general elections in 2014, the Congress has been battered by a series of defeats in state elections one after another bringing it face to face with what many considered an existential crisis.
From being in power in 17 states four years ago, it now rules just three states as the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stream-rolled all opposition parties in poll after poll.
True, the Congress has been voted out of power in Karnataka elections held on May 12. But Congress has clearly outwitted BJP by showing alacrity and flexibility in making the best out of its electoral defeat.
The party was quick to sense its defeat, changed tack and formed a winning post-poll alliance with the regional party Janata Dal (Secular) even as the results were pouring in.
Secondly, the party managed to whip up a public mood against the state governor's decision to invite BJP first to form government and moved the Supreme Court to check it.
While the apex court did not stand in the way of installation of the BJP government, it drastically cut down the timeline given for Yeddyurappa to test his majority from 15 days to 24 hours.
That was an important legal victory for Congress which feared that the 15-day timeline could be used by BJP to try to engineer splits in opposition ranks to bolster its numerical strength and reach the majority mark.
Thirdly, the party kept its entire flock of legislators intact from possible poaching attempts forcing Yeddyurappa to quit even before facing the majority test.
No doubt, Congress has learnt its lessons from its laidback approach in the past in the politics of striking timely winning alliances which saw power slipping from the party's grasp in the western state of Goa in 2017 and northeastern states of Manipur and Meghalaya earlier this year despite finishing on top in the elections there.
A nimble-footed BJP succeeded in coalition-building on time to put itself in power in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya.
Karnataka saw a different and politically smart Congress in beating BJP in the game of alliance politics when the elections produce fractured mandates.
The speed with which Congress extended support to Janata Dal (S) to form government in Karnataka stunned BJP which was smug in its belief that it would secure majority on its own.
The Congress went for the kill to stop BJP much before the vote-count was completed.
The Congress needs to maintain this newfound zeal for crafting coalition as elections in three more states - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan - are due later this year.
All these three states are now ruled by BJP and the outcome of the elections there and political reflexes of both BJP and Congress will set the mood of the 2019 parliamentary polls.
True, the Congress is not new to coalition politics as it has successfully headed the United Progressive Alliance for a decade since 2004.
But Karnataka is the new template of alliance in which Congress, despite having a bigger number of seats, has settled for accepting the role of a junior partner for thwarting the BJP.
Janata Dal (S) had also in the past been a ruling alliance partner of the BJP and its decision to join hands with Congress this time only reflects the growing fear among regional parties in India about the BJP.
However, for Congress' alliance-building or playing second fiddle to regional parties cannot be a substitute for staging a comeback on its own electorally.
The party has to win the elections to reclaim its lost ground and retrieve its position as the natural anchor of a rainbow anti-BJP alliance.
For that to happen, the real challenge for the party is to ponder over its ideological moorings in the light of lessons learnt not only from elections in Karnataka but also in Gujarat where, too, it failed to beat BJP in elections late last year.
In the run-up to elections in both Gujarat and Karnataka, Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi had undertaken frequent visits to temples in a gesture many felt was the party's "soft Hindutva" strategy to counter BJP's brand of Hindutva.
A perception has grown that Congress is unable to counter the BJP's charge of attacking the former with minority appeasement and therefore resorting to something to live down a "pro-Muslim" image.
A question was raised: Has the Congress decided to make a push to the centre-of-the-right from its long-held centre-of-the-left posturing?
How effective has Rahul's visit to Hindu shrines in the run-up to the elections been?
That question is set to get fresh traction and will be debated hard both within and outside the party which failed to regain power in Gujarat and was ousted from power in Karnataka.
The reason for this is not whether Rahul visited the temples out of conviction. But it is because in Karnataka, his own party leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah, on the eve of the recent elections in the state, announced separate minority status to Lingayats, a dominant Hindu community whose vote is crucial for a party seeking to win power in Karnataka.
The Lingayat community has since long been a strong support base of the BJP and Siddaramaiah wanted to split its votes.
It was considered as the Congress' "sub-nationalism" plank as a counter to the BJP's Hindu nationalism.
The BJP projected it as an attempt to divide Hindus and contributed to a counter-consolidation.
As part of its sub-nationalism, Siddaramaiah, on the eve of the election, had made a move to have a separate flag for Karnataka and wanted to make Kannada language mandatory in schools of the state.
His government had also backed pro-Kannada outfits' opposition to the use of Hindi language in signboards at metro rail stations.
That Siddaramaiah's ploy of whipping up Kannada nationalism did not work was evidenced by the electoral outcome.
Why should voters settle for the clone when they have the original (to recall what senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley had said in the run-up to Gujarat polls)?
The sub-nationalism moves by Siddaramaiah had militated against socialist upbringing in politics that had seen him engineering a coalition of different socially backward castes and launching welfare schemes for the poor including seven kg of free rice soon after he became the chief minister in 2013.
So, Congress has to do a lot of thinking to regain its pole position in the 2019 mega battle.
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