Survival kit: how the Congress can bounce back from poll setbacks
Much has been written about the not inconsequential success of the BJP in the recent assembly elections. With a strong footprint now in the Northeast and growing reach in the south - Kerala and Karnataka - there is no doubt that the BJP-led NDA is aiming for national pre-eminence at the expense of the Congress, which is increasingly isolated in the UPA.
With the sole exception of the indefatigable Mani Shanker Iyer, most commentators agree that the Congress has been hitting new lows since the 2014 general election. The party itself maintains it still has a large national footprint in terms of voters, forgetting that in a First Past The Post system, it now controls policy in only six states and one Union Territory affecting the fortunes of only about 7% of the population. The lack of political power will see more rumblings within the party. Some senior Congressman have already called for "major surgery".
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For a democratic country, as the Modi-led BJP surges ahead, it's crucial that a national opposition emerge. As a "Third Front" has not come into being even after 20 years, it seems necessary that the Congress, which is still a national party, must reinvent itself. But how?
First, some lessons from the elections held since 2014. It's interesting that all these elections have thrown up decisive mandates for one party or the other. In particular, spoiler candidates and independents have been given short shrift at the hustings. Generally, voters have plumped for alliances built around a dominant core - NDA with BJP as its pivot, nationally; Nitish-Lalu in Bihar; AIADMK+ and DMK+ in Tamil Nadu. All the others have been decisively rejected. Without a dominant core, a coalition is extremely unstable (it's a well-known theorem in economics).
This explains why the Left-Congress alliance was rejected in West Bengal. No one expected it to be stable unlike the original Left alliance with the CPM as its core. Interestingly, the average voter seems to understand this. Note, for example, the rejection of the "opportunistic" Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF in Assam.
Second, development is critical unless - and this has been the Congress's problem since 2014 - corruption is too much "in your face". Nothing else can explain the fall of the UDF government in Kerala, and the rise of the BJP, despite all favourable developmental indices. It's important to note that the double-digit vote share of the BJP (11% on its own and 15% with allies) is at the expense of the Congress. With even half the BJP votes, the UDF would have returned to power.
Third, the rise of regional forces has coincided with the importance of economic development, especially since 1991. A growing aspirational young population votes for its own leader rather than an unknown face from the Centre. As noted in the report of the 14th Finance Commission, the increased devolution of funds to states was a reflection of demands for greater economic independence of states. The failure of the BJP in Delhi and Bihar assembly elections was precisely due to this factor: no known regional leader was projected. This also explains the success of the BJP in Assam and other regional elections. As I will argue later, this has important implications for national elections as well.
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Fourth, strong regional parties can transfer their votes to alliance partners. This is illustrated by the success of the Congress in Bengal, where it's now the largest opposition party, and in Bihar, where in terms of the percentage of seats won to seats contested, the Congress actually did better than the JD(U). This is a problem the Congress will face in coming elections: the party has shown itself incapable of transferring its votes to allies. One example is the DMK+ alliance in Tamil Naidu. The DMK got only one percent less votes than the AIDMK; had the Congress been able to transfer some of its votes to the alliance, the result might well have gone in DMK's favour. Congress's partners are going to keep this in mind in future.
So, what should the Congress do?
In terms of projecting regional leaders, a start was made in 2013 when Siddaramaiah was made the chief minister of Karnataka even though many national leaders in Delhi felt they had a strong claim to the job. Similarly, persisting with Tarun Gogoi in Assam, projecting Amarinder Singh in Punjab, and course-correcting with Harish Rawat in Uttarakhand are sensible decisions. The loss of Assam was mainly due to the state's poor economic performance: it is the poorest state in the Northeast today with the possible exception of Manipur. That is a steep decline from being the richest state in the region only as far back as the early 1990s. The party now needs to project acceptable regional leaders in other states as well.
This emerging regional dimension has an important implication for the Congress. Starting with the example of Modi in 2014, and the noises being made by regional leaders in other parties, it's increasingly clear that the future prime minister will have to be from a region performing well economically.
This then is the dilemma. It would seem that the Gandhi family is the "glue" holding the Congress together. If this is to be read as the projection of Rahul Gandhi, he must emerge as a regional leader. A bold move would be to project him as the chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh next year. Since the Congress does not have an established leader in the state, this should not create any local dissension. Given the national aspirations of both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, stitching alliances in UP would be difficult, especially as the Congress' ability to transfer votes to its allies is suspect. But, maybe, this is the " surgery" that the Congress needs.
There's no doubt that anti-incumbency gives the Congress a decent chance of winning Punjab although AAP is likely to be a major spoiler. Yet, even a win here does not solve the problem of giving Gandhi legitimacy as a proven political leader. This is essential if the Congress is not to become a loose coalition of regional satraps. The "surgery" would entail projecting Gandhi in UP and promoting clean younger leaders in other states.
Time is not on the Grand Old Party's side. It will disappear by 2018 if some bold decisions are not undertaken now. Just waiting for 2019 and hoping the BJP would "self-destruct" is bad strategy. To rejuvenate and remain a credible national opposition, the Congress must reinvent itself. Will it?
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