Why Rahul Gandhi Dumped The United Opposition Plan
Many regional parties have grown at the expense of the Congress. Its path back to power isn’t through alliances with them.
With Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics, the much-talked about pan-India Congress-led mahagathbandhan stands buried. The Congress has announced it will contest alone in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, which account for 27 percent of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats. With half of all seats expected to be a contest between existing members of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, there’s not much room left for a mahagathbandhan.
In Kerala and Odisha, Congress has been the primary rival of the current ruling parties in the state. The Aam Aadmi Party has ruled out an alliance with the Congress, in Delhi and Punjab. In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (now out of the NDA) is a pale shadow of its former self.
The Congress is being blamed by a section of politicians and commentators for ‘working against the larger cause of defeating the BJP in 2019’. Is the Congress laying the ground for a longer-term revival beyond 2019?
How Does This Help Congress?
It gives the Congress an opportunity to think long-term and not compromise for short-term benefits.
In Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, the parties that Congress was in discussions with, are not its natural partners.
Just a few months back, the Telugu Desam Party was part of the NDA. Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu’s brief new-found love for the Congress was possibly a result of the BJP's rising presence in Bengal and Andhra.
The biggest advantage of adopting a go-it-alone strategy is it blunts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusation that parties of different ideologies and principles are ganging up to defeat him as he is after the corrupt.
Tracing Congress’ Decline
To understand how Congress could revive its fortunes, we need to first look at the erosion of key vote blocs and the decline in support over the years.
The grand old party has lost significant vote share to regional parties and BJP over the years:
- Dalits to BSP and BJP,
- Tribal vote to BJP,
- OBC vote to BJP and Janata Dal offshoots (SP, RJD, BJD, JDS etc.),
- Muslim vote to regional parties,
- Upper caste vote to BJP.
The Congress has also been set back by many splits. In just the last 20 years, there have been the exits of Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), and Jagan Reddy (YSR Congress).
These three parties bagged 8.1 percent of the votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and won 49 seats, five more than the Congress.
Revival Plan: The Big Picture
In the 2014 elections, Congress received 40 percent of its total votes from Schedule Tribe and Muslim voters. However, these two communities account for only 23 percent of the population.
Post-Mandal, the OBC votes have largely been with the Janata Dal splinter groups, and more recently the BJP as Narendra Modi wore the OBC card on his sleeve.
To get back into the fight as a serious contender, the Congress needs to bring back the Scheduled Caste and upper caste votes it lost over the years.
Together, SC, ST, minority, and upper castes are roughly 50 percent of the population.
In the recent elections in the Hindi Heartland, SC-ST voters moved in large numbers for Congress with BJP losing more than half of its 2013 tally. Even if that trend continues, the Congress then needs to get Brahmins on board, who have been vocal BJP supporters since 1989-1991. How does it do that? By giving them more representation in bodies, more tickets, and even make a few chief ministers in some states. Brahmin voters can also influence other voters in their area.
State-Specific Long-Term Revival Strategy
The recent equal-billing secured with the SP notwithstanding, 2014 onward, the BSP has weakened considerably. Its vote share has declined, and the party only has Jatavs as core voters.
The fact that Mayawati has no heir with similar charisma offers hope to the Congress that it can get the votes it lost to the BSP back into its fold.
It needs to project Dalit leaders from UP and position them against Mayawati. Similarly, it also needs to project Brahmin leaders to woo that community back.
The Congress has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh for 30 years. Elsewhere in the country, the minority vote is with Congress. As soon as there’s buzz that Congress is in a winnable situation, minorities in UP will flock to it. The beauty of this social coalition is that there are no antagonistic vote blocks and they gel well together.
Here too, Congress suffers from a lack of leadership its pockets of influence are only in some urban and minority-dominated areas.
Like BSP, the Trinamool Congress lacks a charismatic successor to Mamata Banerjee, but that question can wait for another decade.
The Gandhis could also approach her to merge TMC with Congress.
The animosity between the Gandhis and Mamata Banjeree is now in the past. She also needs the Congress to thwart the BJP’s moves in her backyard.
Some egos will need to be managed here.
The YSR Congress Party has taken away the entire Congress vote bloc. The Congress needs to realise its mistake, treat Jaganmohan Reddy with respect, and get him to return.
Reddy has age on his side, so Congress cannot afford to adopt a wait and watch policy as it can with Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee.
This seems to be the only to revive the party in Andhra. Any alliance with the Telugu Desam Party would not have gone down well with either party’s voter base.
Odisha And Telangana
The Congress needs to implement the lessons learned from Chhattisgarh. In the tribal state, it successfully branded Ajit Jogi’s party as the B-team of BJP.
Now it needs to run a campaign saying that Naveen Patnaik and K Chandrashekhar Rao will eventually support the BJP, as they did in the vice-presidential election. Then highlight the fact that Modi and Amit Shah have been soft on them during campaign stops.
This way, the Congress will stop any anti-establishment (anti-BJP) votes from going to the BJD and TRS, and consolidate Dalits, tribals and minorities towards Congress.
To sum up, Congress has chosen to walk on the long and arduous path to shape a revival, rather than looking for quick fixes. The three wins in the Hindi heartland states have reaffirmed the fact that it is the only party which can defeat BJP. It has to be patient and make the right moves.
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.