As the only player with a major stake in all five Assemblies and at the Centre, the Congress can at best draw limited comfort from Friday's election results. The party registered an impressive victory in Assam, where Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi stormed back to power with a higher number of seats than before. But in Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) defeated the Left by the slenderest of margins, while in West Bengal the party crossed the winning line only because it tied itself firmly to Mamata Banerjee's pallu.
To these victories must be added the losses: a humiliating defeat for the DMK-led coalition in Tamil Nadu, the loss of the Puducherry Assembly to an ex-Congressman, and a complete drubbing in two crucial by-elections in Andhra Pradesh, where the rebel son and wife of the late Chief Minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, won the Kadapa Lok Sabha seat and the Pulivendula Assembly seat respectively with record margins.
These defeats have tempered the Congress' joy at recapturing Kerala and displacing the Left from West Bengal for the first time in 34 years, but the party is in no mood to introspect. Worse, its leadership has not realised that the national impact of the three provincial wins is less than the sum of its parts. Far from providing a much-needed booster shot to the Congress at the Centre, Verdict 2011 has revealed the electoral weakness of its immune system.
Let's take the statistics first. Between them, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam brought in 48 Lok Sabha seats for the United Progressive Alliance in the 2009 general election out of a possible 76. Tamil Nadu and Puducherry brought in 28 seats. Extrapolating from the present trend, the 2014 election will see the UPA losing seats in Tamil Nadu.
These losses can be offset by gains in Assam but not in Kerala, where the UDF's performance in 2011 suggests even a repeat of its 16 out of 20 performance is unlikely. In West Bengal, there is scope for the UPA to increase its Lok Sabha tally by a few more seats, but the beneficiary will be Mamata's Trinamool rather than the Congress. Finally, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy's stunning win in Kadapa, taken together with the Telangana knot the Congress has tied for itself, puts a question mark over its future prospects in Andhra Pradesh. In 2009, the State returned 33 party MPs. It will take a miracle to match those numbers in 2014.
If the Congress faces bleak prospects at the Centre despite winning three States, the Bharatiya Janata Party — which wasn't really in the fray in any of the five Assembly races — may paradoxically have some reason to cheer. That virtually all of its candidates in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu drew a blank gives a serious jolt to its “national” pretensions. But the victory of the UPA in West Bengal and Kerala is seen by BJP strategists as a good thing because the Left's defeat buries the ‘Third Front' idea for at least the current national election cycle. In a polity that is more bipolar than before, the party feels it has a better chance of eventually bringing regional players like the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and even the AIADMK of Jayalalithaa back into the National Democratic Alliance's orbit.
In addition, the Tamil Nadu result could give a boost to the BJP campaign at the Centre on the corruption issue, especially since it need no longer fear the Left reaping collateral benefit from the Manmohan Singh government's vulnerability.
Three big lessons
Three years is, of course, a very long time in politics, and there is no reason to assume the electoral appeal of the Congress cannot grow. For that to happen, however, the party will have to internalise the three big lessons that the five Assembly results have thrown up.
The first lesson is that the electorate cares about corruption and wants the guilty to be punished. While many factors contributed to the defeat of the DMK-Congress combine in Tamil Nadu, the 2G spectrum scam played an important role. The arrest of A. Raja and the chargesheeting of Kanimozhi do not appear to have done much for the Congress. In Kerala, the popular perception of Congress complicity — and the Left Front's own record in providing clean governance — is one reason why the party failed to fully capitalise on the anti-incumbency mood there.
The second lesson — about the need for inclusive development — is from West Bengal but, like the corruption issue, has a pan-Indian resonance as well. A large section of voters may have been yearning for change after seven terms of Left Front rule but it was the mishandling of the land acquisition issue in the West Bengal Left's single-minded pursuit of “investment” that eventually tilted the scales. In the wake of Nandigram and Singur, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) recognised the mistakes it had made and tried to correct them but it was too late. Mamata Banerjee had already run away with the “pro poor” plank. She is likely eventually to drop that but the Left will need to introspect over how it lost its way.
The third lesson from this election season is from Assam and is about the popular support for peace talks and dialogue as a means of dealing with insurgency. Of all the factors that boosted the Congress in this State, it is the Gogoi government's pursuit of talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom that stands out. To be sure, the talks strategy — which worked because it allowed the Congress to win over the Asom Gana Parishad's “nationalist” supporters — may not be replicable elsewhere in the same way. But it does show that the pursuit of a political approach to dealing with an insurgency can produce greater political benefits to a party than the advocacy of force. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chhattisgarh: having run as a ‘B' team to the BJP and backed its disastrous Salwa Judum strategy, the Congress never stood a chance of winning the Lok Sabha by-election in Bastar. Perhaps it is time for a course correction.