What Rahul Gandhi and his advisors should realise is that the BJP does not pose an existential threat to it at all.
The real existential threats to the Congress party are parties like the SP, BSP, assorted Socialists and even the Aam Aadmi Party, all of which are competing for the same vote bank that the Congress had monopolised for many years post independence.
I am writing this piece on the 13 February, 2017. The first phase of the Uttar Pradesh polls is done. By all accounts, the Samajwadi Party and Akhilesh Yadav have not performed as well as their cheerleaders in the media were expecting them to. The most ardent ones have taken to tweeting things like: ‘...Alliance does better than expected’- which to my mind is a nice way of saying that we ardently and fervently hope that phase one has not wiped them out completely. We have also been hearing reports about how Priyanka Gandhi might abandon her campaign in the family’s pocket boroughs of Amethi and Raebareli.
Could it be that the alliance itself is starting to feel unsure and is now fighting for survival? Win or lose - and remember there is still a good chance that Akhilesh and the Congress might scrape through - Akhilesh has established himself as the principal individual player in the increasingly personality-driven political firmament of Uttar Pradesh. But what of the ‘panja’ that was supposed to guide the ‘cycle’ but has instead suddenly chosen to go missing in action?
To me, the Congress party and its incumbent leadership are increasingly starting to resemble Shah Alam - the later Mughal emperor. By the time the he commenced his reign, a Persian proverb which went something like Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam had gained provenance. Roughly translated, it meant that the empire of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam. Something similar can be said about the party today as it looks set to lose Karnataka - the only big or medium-sized state still ruled by it, when it goes to the polls in May 2018.
Students of history might also find an interesting parallel between the state of the Congress Party now and the Mughal Empire in the late 18th century when the Battle of Buxar was fought between the rising East India Company on the one hand and the motley, but still numerically formidable forces of the Mughal emperor and the Nawabs of Bengal and Oudh. The similarity here is that the Mughal emperor was so alarmed at the rising East India Company that he found himself negotiating a subservient position in an alliance with the two aforementioned rulers who were nominally still his vassals. Similarly, today, the Congress party has been reduced to stitching up alliances with the same parties that have gained primarily at its own expense in the Hindi belt over the past 20 years or so.
For a party that ruled Uttar Pradesh almost unchallenged, except occasionally by motley groupings like the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, it is a sorry state of affairs indeed. How the mighty have fallen! The last Congress chief minister to have presided over India’s largest state in terms of population was Veer Bahadur Singh. However, historians of the contemporary era blame him for not having been able to gauge the depth of anger against the Congress party over its intransigence over the Ramjanmabhoomi issue. By the time the gates to the temple were finally opened for worship, it was clearly too little and too late. The Hindus, as well as, Muslims of Uttar Pradesh realised that the Congress party was essentially trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, and deserted it. The BJP gained a large portion of the increasing Hindu vote while Mulayam Singh and the Samajwadi Party poached the Congress party’s Muslim vote bank. A significant section of the Dalit voters of the Congress party also moved away to the BSP as Kanshiram’s DS-4 brand of social engineering took off in the mid-80s.
The fact of the matter is that the Congress has not been able to recoup the losses that it suffered then. The only exceptional performance it has put in recently has been in the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 when it managed exactly 18.25 per cent of the popular vote while winning exactly 22 seats. (Do you remember the media railing against First Past the Post then? I don’t.)
This is a suicidal strategy for a party that is already in terminal decline. The astute strategists of the Congress party need to realise that if they wish to come to power again in 2019, their focus should be on ensuring two things: they defeat the BJP wherever the two national parties are locked in direct combat with each other (states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat); and that they are the main opposition to reigning regional satraps like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, K Chandrasekhar Rao and Chandrababu Naidu.
As iterated in an earlier piece, even if the BJP were to lose this Vidhan Sabha election in UP, it shall surely benefit it in 2019 as it would not be faced with double incumbency at the central as well as state-level. It will also be a strong contender in all the 80 seats on offer. On the other hand, the corresponding figure for the Congress party is 20 odd seats out of 80. As on date, the Congress seems to be set to lose Karnataka in the south, while there is little possibility of it returning to power in Andhra Pradesh, where there is a bipolar fight between the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the YSR Congress. Even Telengana seems to be standing firmly with the Telengana Rashthra Samiti.
Traditionally, these are the two (now three) states that have always stood behind the Congress party when it has suffered reverses in the rest of the country. Contrast the secular diffidence of the Congress when it comes to challenging regional satraps to Amit Shah’s belligerence in dealing with them. No party can win all Vidhan Sabha polls over a five-year cycle. However, what it can ensure is that it remains either in government or occupies the position of the main opposition party in as many states as possible. The BJP knows well that even if it were to lose 50 per cent of the states that it contests polls in and wins the other 50 per cent in the next Lok Sabha polls, it will still form the government at the centre.
The ‘stop the BJP at all costs’ strategy seems to be costing the Congress party dear. What Rahul Gandhi and his advisors should realise is that the BJP does not pose an existential threat to it at all. The real existential threats to the Congress party are parties like the SP, BSP, assorted socialists and even the Aam Aadmi Party, all of which are, in different states, competing for the same vote bank that the Congress had monopolised for many years post independence. By repeatedly entering into an alliance with those who have destroyed and eroded its vote bank, the Congress is ensuring that the possibilities of its comeback at the national level grow dimmer and dimmer with each passing election. I, for one, am unable to understand the logic of such a strategy.