The Congress is not exactly on the road to recovery and revival. But the ability of the party to restore its electoral fortunes can gather momentum if it performs well in the >approaching Assembly elections . This is a politically significant year for the Congress: elections are due in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in 2016, and Punjab and Uttar Pradesh a few months later in 2017. Two of these States going to the polls, Assam and Kerala, are ruled by the Congress. Since States are still the primary sites for political contestation, new political alignments with national ramifications will emerge as both national and State-based parties seek to maximise their electoral prospects in the Assembly polls.
Historically, >the Congress resisted the idea of coalitions but after it lost its dominant position, it has not been averse to coalitions. Indeed, a series of State-specific electoral alliances enabled the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to get ahead of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2004 and 2009 elections. Crafting State-specific alliances is even more important after the party’s collapse in the 2014 general election. It is becoming progressively less competitive in more and more States and constituencies. It has fallen to a third or fourth position in national and Assembly elections in several States and is finding it difficult to revive from these reverses. It has suffered heavy losses in key State elections held after 2014, further accelerating its decline in Delhi, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Adding to its woes is its negligible presence in four big States, notably West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. As if this is not enough, it is currently battling anti-incumbency headwinds in Assam and Kerala. But to some extent it can surmount the challenges it faces through State-specific pre-electoral alliances. It’s worth noting that aggregation of votes at the constituency level can reduce the effect of vote fragmentation under the simple plurality first-past-the-post electoral system, above all in States where the Congress is not strong enough to go it alone.
Coalitions, a common cause Significantly, the Congress may not be the only national party looking out for allies. The landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general election has created the impression that the era of coalition politics is over in the new phase of Indian politics. But despite winning an outright majority in the 2014 election, coalitions are quite important for the BJP to expand its footprints beyond north and north-western India. It needs allies in the southern and eastern States where it does not have a strong presence.
The BJP’s humiliating defeat in Delhi and loss at the hands of a combined opposition in Bihar indicate that the political climate has changed since the general election. Twenty months after it assumed power, the Modi government doesn’t have many achievements to show for itself. Failure to deliver on poll promises, the economic slowdown, agrarian distress, no job creation, intolerance of dissent and the growing concerns among minorities and Dalits about the Sangh Parivar’s majoritarian agenda have fuelled evident discontent. This is the moment for the Congress to strike strategic alliances to counter the BJP’s divisive electoral campaigns and its agenda of building a new hegemony embedded in Hindutva cultural mores. This is also the moment for regional and State-based parties to define their relationship and opposition to the BJP more sharply.
The big question is who will lead the anti-BJP Opposition. The Janata Dal-United (JD-U) seems to believe that the Bihar model of anti-BJP alliance-making can be replicated elsewhere and could hurt the BJP’s plans for Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. But the JD(U) may be exaggerating its influence when it assumes the role of an alliance catalyst in the coming polls. Moreover, we can’t underestimate the Congress as it remains the principal national counterweight to the BJP. However, the ability of the Congress to play a lead role will depend on how it chooses to play its cards. It’s hard to see how the Congress can find its way back into national reckoning unless it reinvents itself through a left-of-centre programme which reconnects it to the masses.
Tactical alliances the key Although there is a section in the Congress which believes the party should not rush into alliances with regional parties and should instead work on a long-term plan to rebuild the party, the successful experiment in Bihar has shown the “arithmetic advantage” of making alliances to prevent the BJP from spreading its wings. Not surprisingly, different State Congress units have hinted that the party may need to build tactical alliances with regional parties to checkmate the BJP and keep it out of power. In specific States, coalitions between the Congress and a regional party are feasible if the Congress is a third/fourth party and the latter’s main opponent is another party — for example, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam/All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK/AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, or the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal. In addition, coalitions between the Congress and other non-BJP parties can work especially if the alliance can slow down the expansion of the BJP at the State level or if the regional party is dependent on minority community votes and the Congress can help consolidate these votes.
Until recently, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had dismissed Badruddin Ajmal and his All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) as communal. However, after the Bihar poll results, Mr. Gogoi is keen to enter into an electoral understanding with all the anti-BJP parties. Likewise, in Tamil Nadu, the Congress is open to an alliance with the DMK. The latter has sent feelers to the Congress to stand up against the AIADMK.
Congress and the Left The most remarkable development in this regard is the possibility of >an electoral alliance of the Congress and the Left in West Bengal — a move which may impact the political equations in the Assembly elections and beyond that in the 2019 general election. Not surprisingly, the West Bengal Congress is openly exploring the possibility of a strategic understanding with the Left to defeat the TMC. A number of Congress leaders have written to Congress President Sonia Gandhi contending that this alliance is needed to defeat the TMC. Even though sections of the Left are against it, the thought of a pre-election alliance with the Congress to dislodge the TMC has occupied the minds of a significant section of the CPI(M) leadership if only to forestall a Congress-TMC alliance from taking shape. The main consideration that set off speculation is that an alliance would not only help guard against division of the Opposition votes, but more significantly pave the way for the consolidation of Muslim votes, besides chipping away at the 17 per cent vote share polled by the BJP in the 2014 general election.
However, both parties would find it difficult to enter into an open alliance because the Congress and the Left are fighting against each other in Kerala and Tripura, and a tie-up in West Bengal could dilute their rivalry in the two other States. Aligning with the Congress in West Bengal and fighting it in Kerala in simultaneous polls can have political costs. While sections within the Left Front may favour an alliance to consolidate the anti-TMC vote, serious ideological reservations within the CPI(M) stand in the way. The prospects of an electoral understanding are complicated by the tactical line adopted by the party’s highest decision-making body in Visakhapatnam last year which said: “The main direction of our attack should be against the BJP when it is in power but this cannot mean having an electoral understanding with the Congress. Neither should there be an approach that the main task of fighting neoliberal policies should be subordinated to the fight against communalism.” Moreover, antipathy to the Congress runs deep in the CPI(M) and cannot be easily subsumed by the practical ground politics of electoral alliances. Conversely, a good electoral showing by the Left parties in the two key States of Bengal and Kerala could help to shift the political template in a progressive direction.
As in the case of the Congress, the Assembly polls are crucial for the CPI(M) and other Left parties which have been out of power in their erstwhile strongholds. There is little doubt that the Left’s road to revival (or survival) passes through West Bengal, a State that gave the Left Front 35 seats out of the unprecedented 60 it won in 2004, and where it is now down to two. A tactical alliance or an electoral understanding whereby they don’t clash with each other in their strong seats may be a way to tackle the formidable clout of the TMC and the threat of a rising BJP. At any rate, the Left has to regain and recover in West Bengal before it can hope to rally the Left and democratic forces in other States for its larger ideological project of transformative politics.
(Zoya Hasan, author of Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change, is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)