Rahul Gandhi with LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, and others, outside Parliament, in New Delhi. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019: Congress Can Learn How BJP Used And Poached Allies

BloombergQuintOpinion

Every political party is breathlessly striking alliances for the 2019 polls. While it’s understandable why the Congress – which is plotting its rise from the abysmal lows of 44 seats in 2014 – would be showing alacrity, even the BJP – riding on its record high of 282 and bragging about having done more in 60 months compared to 60 years of Congress rule – is retreating, pumping flesh, swallowing pride, and cutting deals with detractors. Why is this happening? The answer lies in this electoral gem.

Since 1989, the Congress and BJP have always had a higher strike rate, i.e. won more seats as a fraction of those contested, whenever they have fought fewer seats. Even in the Modi hurricane of 2014, the BJP fought on lesser seats than in 2009. The exception was for the Congress in 2009 – when it fought and won a higher number of Lok Sabha seats – but that perhaps just proved the rule.
Elections 2019: Congress Can Learn How BJP Used And Poached  Allies
Put another way, whenever the Congress or BJP have left a higher number of seats for allies – and accommodated more parties in a pre-poll alliance – they have won more, not less, seats!

This ‘fewer seats but higher strike rate’ lesson is clearly visible in the marquee transactions to date. The BJP even gave up won seats to pacify allies like Nitish Kumar and Uddhav Thackeray.

Amit Shah greets Uddhav Thackeray after the announcement of an alliance between Shiv Sena and BJP, in Mumbai, on Feb. 18. 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Amit Shah greets Uddhav Thackeray after the announcement of an alliance between Shiv Sena and BJP, in Mumbai, on Feb. 18. 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

The Congress also cut neat deals in Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and possibly Maharashtra, winning some, losing some, yet staying utterly focused on “must have these allies on board come what may”.

Congress Holds Back in Delhi, U.P. And Assam: Why?

But now the Congress’s reluctance to go the whole hog in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, is inexplicable. These are key swing states that account for 101 seats; whichever alliance wins here could rule New Delhi for the next five years. And while the BJP is a remarkable Number One in all three states, the Congress is Number Two in Assam and at third place in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Here are the dynamics which, for some odd reason, the Congress leaders are not quite getting:

  • In U.P., the Congress is unquestionably strong in only two seats, the Gandhi family bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli.
  • It could be in a winning position in another half a dozen seats, where a strong Congress candidate could pull together its traditional rainbow coalition of Brahmins, Thakurs, Kurmis, Muslims, and Dalits to cross the winning threshold of 35 percent in a 3-cornered contest. But that’s it!
  • Every other bet after this is risky and two-edged. In 70-odd seats, the Congress’s best case would be about 15-20 percent of the votes, not good enough to win itself, but good enough to make the BJP win.
  • In a perverse blow of multi-cornered poll arithmetic, the stronger a Congress candidate is and harder s/he fights, the more it shall benefit the BJP.
  • In Delhi, which does not have the complex caste arithmetic of U.P., the picture is starker. The score could be 7-0 for the BJP if the opposition vote is split between AAP and Congress. Conversely, it could be 0-7, if AAP and Congress do a perfect alliance.
Arvind Kejriwal waves as AAP leaders garland him during a public meeting in New Delhi, on Feb. 20, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Arvind Kejriwal waves as AAP leaders garland him during a public meeting in New Delhi, on Feb. 20, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
  • In Assam, the score-line could be jumbled if the Congress, AGP, and AUDF fight separately. But if the Congress and AGP come together, they could win 10+ out of 14. Some people argue that the AUDF should also be roped in; but since the fear of counter-polarisation in BJP’s favour is an imponderable, Congress+AGP could avoid this political risk.
  • Finally, there is an over-riding truth about the 2019 polls that the Congress needs to internalise: while it’s important to maximise its own seats, it’s even more critical to minimise the BJP’s gains. So if the Congress is faced with the Hobson’s choice of “I win five and BJP wins 10” versus “I win only one but BJP also wins one”, I would argue that the Congress should willingly pick up the latter option. That is, it should happily lose four seats provided it can inflict a nine-seat damage on the BJP!
  • Ultimately, this election will pivot on 30 seats. If the BJP gets 180, and the Congress 130, then the BJP shall form the government; but just a 30-seat switch will do what happened in 2004 – at 160 for the Congress versus 150 for the BJP, the Congress will form the government. It’s that close.

A 15-20 Percent Vote Share Is Treacherous

It’s an irrefutable political theorem in a multi-cornered, first-past-the-post system: whenever a party falls to the third place in a state, its 15-20 percent vote share becomes treacherous. A blunt, impatient desire to increase the vote share can actually damage a party’s strategic intent. The game has to be played cleverly, patiently if a party wants to get out of this abyss.

For every Congress leader who dithers or disagrees with this theorem, Rahul Gandhi should herd her into a war room and tell a little story: how the BJP climbed out of the ditch – a mere 2 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1985 – to become the most powerful political entity in India.

BJP leaders Madan Lal Khurana, LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Vijayaraje Scindia. (Photograph: PIB)
BJP leaders Madan Lal Khurana, LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Vijayaraje Scindia. (Photograph: PIB)

Also read: Elections 2019: Will Modi Pull Off An Indira (1971) Or Fall Like Vajpayee (2004)?

As is screamingly obvious in hindsight, the BJP would accept its weak position, playing second fiddle to a powerful regional force in state after state; once it became a strong Number Three, it would assiduously chip away at the partner’s vote/talent base, patiently and cleverly expanding its own footprint; and would ultimately swallow its regional ally to become the unchallenged Number One.

BJP’s Flawless Strategy of Rising From Number Three to One

Rahul Gandhi can actually shock his recalcitrant local chieftains into submission with these graphic examples:

  • Gujarat: in 1990, the BJP’s 67 MLAs supported Chimanbhai Patel’s Janata Dal to form the government. Its own Keshubhai Patel became Deputy CM. Soon, the Janata Dal was subsumed in the BJP... and well, the BJP has totally dominated Gujarat ever since!
  • Goa: in 1999, BJP’s Manohar Parrikar aligned with the breakaway Goa People’s Congress to gain power; Parrikar then split his partner and joined with MGP to become Goa CM; today, Parrikar is still in office, while MGP has been whittled down to three MLAs.
  • Haryana: in 1982 and 1987, the BJP formed an alliance with Devi Lal’s INLD. It then hooked up with Bansi Lal’s Haryana Vikas Party, but withdrew support, getting back in bed with INLD. Today, the BJP is ruling Haryana, and INLD is in the wilderness.
  • Karnataka: in 2006, BJP and JD(S) became partners in government; in 2008, in the famous ‘Operation Kamala’, it poached from both Congress and JD(S) to become the ruling party. It has the highest number of MPs from Karnataka in the current Lok Sabha.
  • Assam: from 2001 through 2016, the BJP piggy-backed on AGP to grow from zero to seven MPs. Today, it’s ruling Assam, while AGP is in the boondocks.
  • Maharashtra: since 1995, the BJP had been allied with Shiv Sena; but they split before the 2014 Assembly poll in which the BJP defeated the Sena. Today, it’s calling the shots in the state.
  • Odisha: from 1998 through 2009, the BJP locked in with the BJD to grow in the state. Once the BJD ditched it, the BJP poached from all around to become the principal challenger.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (Photograph: PIB)
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (Photograph: PIB)

Also read: Elections 2019: The Outcome When Modi Won’t Be Sangh Parivar’s Choice

It’s A Tried-And-Tested Recipe For The Congress…

So the writing, and strategy, for the Congress is on the wall, as it begins the arduous climb out of the ditch in Delhi, U.P., and Assam: become the junior partner, and over the next few polls, poach your partner’s talent and vote base to reclaim your past glory in the state. Got it?

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.