Rahul Gandhi with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia, in Lucknow, on Feb. 11, 2019. (Photographer: Nand Kumar/PTI)

Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face

BloombergQuintOpinion

Rahul Gandhi has been closing the gap with Narendra Modi across surveys in leadership ratings that ask ‘who is best suited to be Prime Minister’. The two latest opinion polls, one by VMR and other by CSDS, predict that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance could well be 30-50 seats short of a majority in 2019. Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment as the Congress’ general secretary in-charge of east Uttar Pradesh and the successful roadshow on February 12 in Lucknow point towards the fact that the contest for 2019 is wide open. However, it’s going to be an uphill task for Congress to wrest power from BJP.

We look at five factors which highlight the significant challenges Congress faces in dislodging BJP from power.

1. Total Congress Votes Stagnant Over Three Decades

India’s voter base has increased from around 50 crore in 1989 to 83 crore in 2014. Along with this, turnout increased from 61.9 percent to 66.4 percent during the same period. As a result, the votes polled has almost doubled the votes polled - from 30.9 crore to 55.4 crore.

However, the votes polled by Congress declined by 10 percent from 11.9 crore in 1989 to 10.7 crore in 2014.

During the same period, votes polled by BJP more than tripled from 5.35 crore to 17.2 crore. Votes received by other regional and small parties, and independents doubled from 13.7 crore to 27.5 crore.

  • Votes polled by Congress declined through the years 1989 (11.9 crore) to 1998 (9.5 crore). During a majority of this period, no Gandhi family member held the top position in the party.
  • From 1999 to 2009 the votes it received went up, as Sonia became party president.
  • However, even in 2009, when the Congress-led UPA-II managed to retain power, it could not better its 1989 record, gathering the same number of votes as 1989.
Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face

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2. Low Vote Share To Seats Conversion

Congress’ voteshare-to-seats or conversion ratio is lower than BJP’s.

This means Congress needs to gather more votes to get the same number of seats as BJP.

Since its inception, BJP’s average conversion ratio has been 6.4x, while that of INC during the same period is 5.5x (1984-2014). After excluding the 2014 and 1984 results as outliers, BJP’s ratio improves to 6.9x while Congress’ ratio remains the same at 5.5x.

An easy way to understand this is, assume both parties record 30 percent vote share in an election, BJP would be expected to get 192 seats while Congress 165 seats, based on their past performance and conversion ratios.

3. Congress Vote Share Third Or Lower In 7 States Which Have 187 Seats

In the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra, Haryana, Delhi, and West Bengal, Congress finished third or fourth in terms of vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. These states account for 164 seats. After the Lok Sabha polls, Congress’ position has deteriorated in Odisha and Tripura, adding another 23 to this list, and taking the total of such seats where the party is on a weak platform to 187 seats.

Out of these 187 seats, Congress won just three seats in 2014 and finished runner-up in 26.

Across the 464 seats Congress contested in 2014, it finished third or lower in 196. This implies Congress didn’t have a fighting chance in over a third of the Lok Sabha’s total strength.

Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face

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4. High Strike Rate Required

Over the last two elections, Congress has been contesting an average of 450 seats. It contested 440 seats in 2009, and 464 in 2014, leaving around 100 seats for its UPA partners in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The party is expected to contest a similar number of seats this time as well. The only major party which has been newly-inducted in UPA is Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).

The Congress has been seeing a declining return on the seats it contests in.

The party’s strike rate fell from 75 percent through the Nehru years to 55 percent in 1967 (the first assault on its dominance) and 31 percent in 1977 (the first non-Congress government at the centre).

In the coalition era since 1989, its best strike rates have been recorded in 1991 (49 percent) and 2009 (47 percent) when party managed to form government at the center. During the period, 1989-2009, (excluding 2014 performance which can be considered an aberration), its average strike rate has been 36 percent.

Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face

Congress needs a minimum of 180 seats to stay in contention of leading a non-BJP government at the centre. That’s the way for it to lead a post-poll coalition with a commanding position. If it ends with a tally around 150, regional parties may not let Congress take home the Prime Minister’s chair. If the party gets to 200, its strength further gets enhanced for any post-poll negotiations.

The Congress is expected to contest a lower number of seats in 2019 as it has revived its alliance with DMK in Tamil Nadu, will leave a few seats in Karnataka for JD(S), and may have to offer more seats to NCP in Maharashtra. By that calculation, Congress could contest 430 seats in 2019.

The party needs a strike rate of 67-74 percent if it wants to have a shot at government formation. This is 1.7–1.9 times its long-term historical average in the coalition era.

Even for a tally of 150, Congress needs a strike rate of 56 percent, which is higher than the 47 percent achieved in 2009, when the party led the UPA-II government.

Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face

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5. Heavy Loss In 2014, By Big Margins

On the 224 seats where Congress finished as runner up in 2014, its average margin of defeat was 17.97 percent (165 of these 224 seats were lost to BJP, with a near-20 percent margin). To go from runner-up to winner in these 224 seats, Congress needs an 18 percent swing in its favour – that the winning party’s votes drop by 9 percent, and Congress votes go up by 9 percent.

Such a large gain or drop, of around 9 percent, has occurred only four times in India’s electoral history.
Elections 2019: The Steep Climb That Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi Face
  • 1977 – This election happened after the Emergency and voters were angry with Indira Gandhi’s 1975 decision, which led to a Congress rout.
  • 1980 – This election happened after the Janata Party, which formed the government in 1977, buckled under its own contradictions. Indira Gandhi returned to power with thumping majority.
  • 1989 – This election happened in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal and Congress had to pay a heavy price for the bribery allegations against those close to the Gandhi family.
  • 2014 – This election happened after multiple allegations of corruption against the UPA government. BJP successfully projected Modi as a mascot of development and sent Congress down to its lowest tally.

To sum up, it’s a daunting task for Congress to dislodge BJP from power in 2019. The fact that it has defeated BJP in three Hindi heartland states helps improve its confidence to confront the BJP in 165 head-to-head contests where it lost in 2014.

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.