Future tense for Congress

POORNIMA JOSHI | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 20, 2016

Recipe for disaster When parties don't get it right KV Srinivasan

The Congress’ poor showing in the Assembly elections has served to strengthen the BJP’s political standing

The just-concluded round of elections reflect a sense of déjà vu in that the supremacy of the regional satraps in their fiefdoms contrasts sharply with the overall decline of the Congress as a national alternative to the ascendant BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The trend that started with the Congress’ successive losses in the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi Assembly elections in 2014, the rout in the general elections and the subsequent provincial polls in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, is now clearly a well-established pattern.

The slide downward

As things stand today, the Congress has slipped to third or worse position in as many as 10 major States — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and even Delhi.

This translates into what research conducted by Adnan Farooqui of Jamia Millia Islamia refers to as the Congress becoming “uncompetitive” in States with over 301 seats, or a majority of 55 per cent Lok Sabha seats. Losing an election or two is not as critical as becoming a third or a fourth player, a “tail-ender” as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has taken to describing the Congress’ present state.

There were no surprises even in the tenacity of the State satraps to hold on to their fiefdoms. Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa, on the lines of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar as also the debutant Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi before that, easily fobbed off the Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-Congress combine in Tamil Nadu.

Different strokes

What was most instructive was the study in contrast on a journey to Assam during the election campaign last month. This campaign, the story of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stupendous success in Assam where it notched up 60 seats on its own with a 29.5 per cent vote share in a State with 34 per cent Muslim votes, was symbolic of the hunger with which it is steadily eating into the Congress’ support base. It was equally reflective of the lethargy with which the Congress is allowing it to happen.

There was the BJP’s newly-inducted Himanta Biswa Sarma, a bright spark even at the end of a gruelling day of campaigning as he chatted with some of us journalists from midnight to the wee hours of the morning and then proceeded on the road to Silchar to address another round of election rallies. And there was his one-time mentor-turned adversary, the brilliant but ageing Tarun Gogoi who sacrificed his promising protégé Sarma for the advancement of his not-so-promising son, Gaurav Gogoi.

For three consecutive terms, Gogoi ruled Assam, marginalising regional forces such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and keeping the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/BJP at bay.

In the twilight of his career, he and the Congress brass literally marched a critical strategist of Biswa Sarma’s calibre into an ascendant adversary’s camp.

The BJP did much more than anoint Biswa Sarma as the head of their campaign. The ruling party’s chief strategist and president, Amit Shah, showed he was quick in learning from past errors of judgment in Delhi and Bihar.

Accordingly, as opposed to a centralised strategy where MPs and Cabinet ministers led by the Prime Minister were its chief campaigners, the BJP ran a mostly localised campaign with Biswa Sarma and Sarbananda Sonowal, another import from the AGP, as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. It also cobbled an impressive alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front besides cashing in on the State-wide support of its other ally, the AGP.

What all this adds up to in terms of future trends is that the BJP, with its ability to adopt new partners and add strength and value to its campaign, is a far more attractive ally to strong regional players than the Congress.

Although its ‘communal’ tag is still a liability for those seeking minority support, the BJP brings a lot more to the plate than the Congress in its present state of decline.

How to garner support

While electoral alliances are still a matter of what works best for individual partners, the ruling party can certainly use the loss of credibility of its two fiercest challengers in Parliament — the Congress and the Left — to garner support for its legislative agenda. In fact, the decimation of the Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal is another key takeaway in terms of weakening their voice in Parliament. Mamata Banerjee has already dubbed the Congress’ drift towards the Left a “misadventure” and expressed a certain ambivalence towards the BJP.

Again, a BJP alliance with the TMC (All-India Trinamool Congress) is hardly likely given Banerjee’s dependence on the minority vote. But this does not prevent the TMC from lending a helping hand to the BJP in Parliament. In her first press conference immediately after the results were announced, Banerjee has already reiterated her support for the constitutional amendment in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation and asserted that she is willing to “work with anyone for development ”.

The AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) is similarly favourably inclined towards the Centre although it is unlikely to change its position on the GST law. The Prime Minister’s cordial relations with the Tamil Nadu chief minister result in the AIADMK providing a big buffer to the treasury benches in the Rajya Sabha.

Indeed, the present round of elections prevents the opposition parties from gravitating more towards the Congress and the Left, at least in terms of chalking out a common strategy in Parliament. By once again highlighting the stark decimation of the principal opposition party, the Assembly polls have served to strengthen the ruling BJP’s political standing.

Published on May 20, 2016
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