Another opportunity missed for Congress

The Congress needs regional allies, more than they need it, to arrest its complete obsolescence

May 29, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:46 am IST

West Bengal and Odisha are breakthrough States for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both States are under the rule of established regional parties, one of a direct Congress provenance, the other with a more complex descent that socialist streams have contributed to.

Till the current election, the BJP was not the principal opposition in either State. This year’s implosion of the Left has enabled the BJP to pick up a rich harvest in West Bengal, and a plunge in the Congress’s vote share has contributed further to its fortunes. With its paltry share of votes, the Congress nonetheless won two seats, while with more votes the Left was denied even the small solace of one. Close to a third of the total Congress vote has come from the two seats of Baharampur and Maldaha Dakshin, the one carefully nurtured over the years by local strongman Adhir Chowdhury, the other a bequest from old grandee A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chaudhary to his brother.

Through all this, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has actually increased its share of votes from 39.8 to 43.3%, though with the BJP vaulting to within three points of the latter figure, her party’s seats tally has dwindled from 34 to 22.

Odisha presents a similar picture in its broad arithmetic. A strongly entrenched regional party has maintained its pre-eminence, but the BJP has taken a large bite out of the Congress’s votes to improve its Lok Sabha tally from merely one to 8. There is evidence here of voter discrimination between State and national elections. The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has won 44.7% of the vote in the State contest, but 42.1% in the Lok Sabha. That slippage may have contributed to the BJP’s share increasing by close to 6 percentage points between the State and Lok Sabha contests, though the greater contribution came from the Congress. Between the 2014 and the current Lok Sabha elections, the Congress vote share in Odisha fell from 25.7% to 16.1%, contributing to the BJP’s share increasing from 18.8% to 32.5%.

Uttar Pradesh presents a picture of two regional formations, which mostly alternated in power at the State level till 2017, failing to consolidate their vote shares.

The southern vote

In Karnataka, the constant bickering between the leadership of the Congress and its ally, the Janata Dal (Secular), not to mention the promotion of dynastic ambitions by the latter, propelled the BJP for the first time, to a vote share in excess of 50%.

The BJP was squeezed out of contention in Andhra Pradesh, where two powerful regional combines have between them signed up the most influential voting blocs.

Tamil Nadu again presents a picture of discriminating voter choice between local and national contests. Despite being in alliance with the ruling party of the State, the BJP drew a blank. Its partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, stood to be displaced from power if it lost substantially among the 22 by-elections. It won a mere 18.5% of the vote to the Lok Sabha, but over 38% in the Assembly by-elections, and will now retain power through the tenure of the current Assembly.

BJP’s growth

Early in 1997, when the BJP was a substantial presence in the Lok Sabha, though not the kind of company any other party would want, party leader L.K. Advani addressed the challenges before it in media interviews. He is credited with creating the extremist template that has brought India the gift of a second term with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Unlike Mr. Modi, Mr. Advani never shied away from media interviews. He could stir up crowds but also speak reflectively with all the practised savvy of a political scientist.

The BJP, he claimed at the time, had suffered the unfair ostracism of other parties which refused to support its claims to government formation in 1996. The alternative United Front (UF) government that emerged, abjectly dependent on the Congress, was unlikely to last. Ultimately, the BJP would prove the irresistible magnet around which all politics would revolve.

The growth of the BJP could be calibrated against the decline of the Congress, which unlike any other player in a multi-party democracy, was “the system itself”. Yet, it was a small worry that the BJP’s “amazing growth” over the decade prior had “not been able to match the rate of decline of the Congress”.

The UF government imploded before the end of 1997, and the BJP managed to gather a sufficient number of the fission products into its orbit to fight the 1998 election in a broad alliance. This constellation of allies was, with minor rearrangements, retained through the 1999 contest, which brought in a coalition government that for the first time, served out a full term.

Lows for Congress

Troubles began when partners started leaving the BJP’s company after the Gujarat riots of 2002. Now facing an existential crisis, the Congress proved wise to the opportunities, shedding earlier dogmas and tying up a number of alliances. In the 2004 election, whose outcome was a patchwork of discrete regional contests, the Congress toppled the BJP off its perch, riding the good economic times that were dawning, into another win in 2009.

By 2014, with massive support from business lobbies and the media, the BJP seemed at last to have crossed the threshold, where it could grow into all the spaces vacated as the Congress plunged to yet another low. Despite the confidence with which it went into battle in 2014 and 2019, the BJP was careful to cultivate and retain a number of key regional allies. For the Congress, which showed much less accommodation despite its greater vulnerability, the lesson should be clear. It alone, with its rigid internal dynastic rules, can hardly represent the complex politics of this country. It needs regional allies, even more than they need it, to arrest a rapid plunge into obsolescence.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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