The Congress is in a piquant place these days.
Even though the party is in no position to contest the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its own, and would get less than 10 seats in the general elections of 2024 if it tried, the Congress refuses to compromise and cede adequate tactical space to other opposition parties.
This list of parties has two parts —
Parties traditionally allied with the Congress, like Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, or the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand
Parties which are unaligned, like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, the Communists in Kerala, or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi and Punjab
As a result, a vital chunk of votes gets locked up, the index of opposition unity remains lower than achievable, and the advantage swings to the BJP.
This is true even in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Assam, and Karnataka, where the Congress is the principal opposition party.
The two exceptions are Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but that is only because the opposition to the opposition are non-BJP parties.
The reason is simple: the Congress is shrinking. With each election cycle, the party loses one more state, making its resurrection that much more difficult.
At the same time, the Muslim vote is leaving (or has already left) the Congress in bulk for coalition allies or other unaligned opposition parties.
In Bihar, for example, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) managed a quiet coup in June by absorbing four of five All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) MLAs, all of whom are clustered in the Seemanchal region, where the Congress won a lone Lok Sabha seat in 2019.
In Delhi, the Muslim vote has left the Congress for the AAP, lock stock and barrel.
And in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is so bereft of the Muslim vote (or any vote, for that matter) that its presence or absence in a coalition has no impact on electoral outcomes.
Only the Muslim League in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF in Assam remain. Yet, even there, the strain of association is finally showing.
Nonetheless, the Congress does get more votes in general elections by virtue of being one of only two truly national parties. This is something the other opposition parties have recognised and deferred to thus far.
But now, even that fig leaf is withering away. It is clear from the results of the last two general elections that the Congress got into double figures only because of alliances with regional parties like the DMK and its continued attraction to a section of the Muslim vote.
As the map below shows, the Congress has managed to win back-to-back in only 17 seats in the past three general elections of 2009, 2014, and 2019.
And of these, most wins are courtesy the Muslim vote, while the remainder, which can be counted on one hand, are pocket boroughs of powerful political families — the Naths of Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, the Gogois of Kaliabor in Assam, and the Gandhis of Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh.
Sceptics may rebut this point by arguing that the writer is presenting an overtly pessimistic view by focusing on the Congress in isolation, and that the image is much better at the coalition level.
Well, if we look at how many seats the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won back-to-back in the past three general elections, we see that the number rises only by seven — from 17 to 24.
Now, bearing in mind that 2009 represented both the apogee of the Congress in the past quarter century and the nadir of the BJP, look at a similar map of the BJP.
As we see, even including its worst days, the BJP managed to maintain a core base of 95 seats, mainly in large states. This figure will more than double in 2024, meaning that the BJP is today capable of winning around 250 seats on its own with or without a coalition.
This figure of 95 improves to 128 when we map three consecutive wins at the coalition level (the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA).
However, this is misleading since allies have snapped ties with the BJP in three states — Punjab, Bihar, and Maharashtra, so the BJP map is probably a better indicator of the party’s core strength.
Still, the opposition need not take heart from these upheavals in the NDA, since there is a key difference between the NDA and the UPA:
While the UPA is weak — and will get weaker because the Congress is waning — the NDA is dwindling because it is slowly outliving its purpose, as the BJP continues to grow in most states.
What are the opposition parties to do, then? How much longer will they remain in this Congress-made rut and watch as their fortunes shrink in step with their ally?
Neither will the Congress reinvent itself, nor will it permit a recasting of the opposition space, by virtue of the residual Muslim vote it commands, the extra votes it gets in general elections, and its lingering presence in large states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, and Karnataka, where alternative opposition parties have not yet taken root.
As a recent analysis of victory margins in general elections showed, cobbling together inorganic coalitions to take on the BJP will only have a muted impact at the national level, since the BJP has now learnt to win big even if the index of opposition unity is near-total.
This is because the only way the opposition can consolidate effectively is around the identity vote, since the Congress has shrunk to irrelevance in many states and such a move invariably triggers a massive counter-consolidation in favour of the BJP.
As a result, the only way the opposition can secure a sizable popular mandate is by attracting votes from the BJP. But it can’t do that as long as it has to compromise on the number of seats the Congress wishes to contest or suffer the lack of competitive national leadership.
Rahul Gandhi is not going to trounce Narendra Modi in a month of Sundays, but others would be willing to have a go, if only the Congress permitted them adequate leeway.
In simple words, the problem is that the Congress, by its delusional intransigence, has become a greater electoral nuisance to opposition parties than to the BJP.
Thus, as the next general elections approach, as opposition parties get increasingly desperate to position themselves advantageously, and the BJP continues to expand its base, the urge for a Congress-mukt Bharat would, ironically, start becoming more imperative for the rest of the opposition than for the BJP.
Whether that happens before 2024 or after is simply a matter of detail, but it is coming one way or another. The Congress will have to be replaced by the opposition if the BJP’s ascendancy is to be contested.
And the greatest irony is that if the Congress indeed responds by trying to reinvent itself, the greater threat of that will be to the opposition than to the BJP.
That’s a fine conundrum the Congress finds itself in — it can’t aid the opposition in taking on the BJP without weakening itself and it can’t strengthen itself without weakening the opposition, thereby gifting the advantage to the BJP.
That’s what happens when identity politics gets gradually marginalised, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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