Various political parties across the country have signalled the commencement of their positioning, for the run up to next year’s general elections, in different ways.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) girded its loins by snaring a lone Congress member of the West Bengal assembly who’d won in a recent byelection.
K Chandrashekhar Rao has been taking out full page advertisements on how much he is doing for the Brahmin community in Telangana.
In the Punjab, the Akali Dal (SAD) has disassociated itself from attacks on the central government by the rest of the opposition, and maintained a studied silence, possibly as a precursor to re-aligning with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In Assam, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the incumbent parties have improved their positions since the last general elections.
In Bihar, all sitting MLAs of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) have joined Tejasvi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
And the Congress and its allies have initiated an open consolidation of the identity vote across the country, via their usual alarmism about a saffron bogey, and bolstered by rank welfarism for broader appeal.
Thus, as things stand, those parties who are well-entrenched have an opportunity to further strengthen their bases next year. That includes the BJP.
There are, however, four exceptions — Bihar, Maharashtra, the Punjab and Kerala — where dramatic shifts in political alignments have taken place.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar switched sides for the ‘nth’ time and ditched the BJP to join hands with the RJD, the Congress, and the Maoists. In the Punjab, the Congress is finished, and the SAD has broken ranks with the BJP.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena has expelled the Thackeray family and re-united with the BJP. And in Kerala, the Kerala Congress of Jose K Mani, a party of the Christians and a decades-long ally of the Congress, left to join the Communists in 2020.
Nonetheless, India is a large country, and a survey of firewall seats offers us indicators of how parties would broadly fare next year. (Note: a firewall seat is one which a party wins consistently by handsome margins).
In this exercise, two sets of firewall seats were drawn up. The first set is of those seats which a party has won consecutively in the last three general elections of 2009, 2014, and 2019.
The year 2009 is a natural cut-off because of a delimitation exercise carried out the year before, which changed constituency boundaries.
There are 157 firewall seats spanning 2009 to 2019. 95 of these were won by the BJP, and 17 by the Congress. Together, the two parties constitute 70 per cent of the list.
Only two other parties enter double digits — the TMC and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. The rest represent bastions of the identity vote, or carefully cultivated family boroughs.
Thus, it is no surprise that Asaduddin Owaisi is unbeatable in Hyderabad, as are the Gowda family in Hassan, the Pawar family in Baramati and Satara, the Yadav family in Mainpuri, the Kerala Congress in Kottayam, the Muslim League in Malappuram and Ponnani, or Badruddin Ajmal in Dhubri.
However, these pale before the core strength of the BJP, especially when we bear in mind that 2009 was a particularly lean year for the party. This is where the importance of Karnataka also becomes increasingly apparent.
Indeed, in 2009, the largest number of BJP wins was from this state — 19. And 15 of these are firewall seats. This stunning record is bettered only by Madhya Pradesh (16), and matched only by Gujarat (15). Even in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has only 10 firewall seats.
In contrast, we see that the core strength of the Congress is actually non-existent, with its firewall seats reduced to family boroughs like Kaliabor of the Gogoi family in Assam, Chhindwara of the Nath family, and a large cluster in Kerala courtesy the identity vote.
To put the Congress’s predicament in perspective, they have 17 firewall seats across the country, while the BJP has nearly as many in three medium-sized states each (large states are those with 40 or more seats).
The geographical distribution of these firewall seats is shown in a map below.
The list is roughly the same when we look at seats held by a party in 2014 and 2019.
One difference is that the BJP’s figure of 95 shoots up to 248 in the past two elections. That is an increase of 261 per cent, and 70 per cent of the total 354 holds.
Also, it is interesting to note that the TMC had more holds than the Congress in 2019: 20 in West Bengal, compared to 19 pan-nationally for the Congress.
Read that again: a regional party restricted to one state, and contesting on its own, has more holds than a national party with umpteen allies!
If that doesn’t tell us what the actual state of the Congress is, then perhaps nothing will.
The BJD improved their tally slightly from 10 to 12, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti from two to seven, and the YSRCP of Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh notched eight.
The Shiv Sena’s leap from six to 14 has to be discounted because the party has gone through a process of evolution, and political dynamics in Maharashtra are yet to settle.
It is the same with the Lok Janshakti party (LJP) in Bihar, where too, their five firewall seats will have to be evaluated in the light of an ongoing churn in the state.
But the two biggest takeaways of this exercise are the phenomenal growth in the core strength of the BJP, and the extreme fragility of the Congress.
Of the 52 seats which the Congress won in 2019, more than half are from three states alone — Kerala (15), the Punjab (8), and Tamil Nadu (8).
As on date, it is doubtful if the Congress will win anything in the Punjab because the party has disintegrated there, and they will be hard pressed to hold on to even half the seats they won in Kerala, in 2019, since the Kerala Congress has switched sides to the Communists, along with a large section of the Christian vote so vital to Congress electoral fortunes.
That leaves only Tamil Nadu, where the Congress exists at the sufferance of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
No wonder Rahul Gandhi is reduced to saying that the Muslim League is a secular party, because, without that solid bloc vote, the Congress will struggle to win more than 30 seats in 2024. He can’t even win Wayanad without them.
That in turn makes the BJP the party to beat. How difficult or easy that will be, we shall examine in the second part of this series.
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