Why 2016 Will Be A Difficult Year For Congress
State level leaders are not happy, the National Herald case will attract attention, the party may not do well in Kerala and Assam. It looks like the Congress party may not have a great 2016 after-all.
After tasting an electoral victory after three difficult years, Congress party is seemingly recovering. Post the Bihar victory for the Mahagatbandhan, Rahul Gandhi appears more confident, Sonia Gandhi seems fitter, and the grand old party of India has somewhat successfully thwarted the government’s economic and legislative agenda in the Parliament. However, the path ahead for the Congress party is still arduous and steep.
While the hashtag #131yearsYoungCongress did well to trend for a long time on Twitter, 2016 brings its own set of challenges for the Congress. This is particularly true as it looks to consolidate on its 2015 victories, or rather Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi’s defeats. As such, the time for them to celebrate is short. Congress is going into 2016 assembly elections with two out of four states in its kitty – Assam and Kerala as the incumbent ruling party and seeking to stay relevant in the other two – Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
Incidentally, Assam and Kerala are also two out of three largest states that Congress currently rules in, with Karnataka being the largest. This means that for the Congress party, its funding conduits are coming up for grabs, which makes the contest even more significant for the Gandhis and the party at large.
Congress is still dropping in terms of Assembly seats
A negative turn in BJP’s fortune over 2015 has not meant that the Congress is reviving. For the first time since it was formed in 1980, the BJP moved ahead of Congress in terms of number of MLAs it has across India in 2014. This is something BJP has never been able to achieve before, even when it was in power from 1998 to 2004. The string of assembly election losses for the Congress post Karnataka 2013 has really hurt its state level position, and Congress is unlikely to reverse this trend going into 2016. The only time Congress lost its pole position as the centre of Indian politics was post 1977, when the first non-Congress government came to power almost across India.
Congress needs allies more than they need Congress
Despite its success in Bihar, Congress does not seem confident about the future. The recent events in Assam betray this nervousness on behalf of both Tarun Gogoi and the party. The apparent push by the high command to tie up with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), even at the risk of isolating local leaders indicates that the Congress is unsure about its electoral prospects.
Even here, it is Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal United (JDU) who are apparently leading the push for a multi party tie up in Assam, and not Rahul Gandhi. While in recent days the tie up has been somewhat de-prioritised by both AIUDF and Congress, it does appear that Congress will not be able to make it past the half way mark without some serious support from AIUDF, and possibly even AGP.
Compounding their problems in Assam is the increasing meltdown in Kerala. Despite Oomen Chandy’s candidature, Congress is buckling under pressure from its numerous scams. The Kerala Finance Minister KM Mani recently had to resign after the Kerala High Court upheld the directive of a state Vigilance Court to conduct probe into his alleged role in a corruption case. The local unit is ridden with factions, and the recent loss in local body elections seems to have shaken up state leaders, even as national leaders focus on Assam.
For the first time ever, the BJP will expect to win a few assembly seats in Kerala in 2016 post the recent strong showing in the local body elections especially in Thiruvanathapuram and Palakkad districts. Although the BJP will almost certainly end third by vote share in Kerala, the optics for Congress will be very poor if it loses a few seats to the BJP and loses the power to the Left Front.
In Bengal and Tamil Nadu, Congress cannot hope to win more than a handful of seats, with or without allies. While there are reports that a tie up with the old ally Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) has been finalized in Tamil Nadu and the party is likely to have some kind of a tacit understanding in Bengal with the Communists, Congress seems to be heading towards a net negative number of total MLAs across India post the 2016 state polls.
Rajya Sabha numbers will continue to recede
As of now, Congress is the largest party in Rajya Sabha. The National Democratic Alliance has only 63 members in the house, well short of the majority 126 mark (or 123 while the total members are 244 for now). The Congress alone has 67 members and supported by the allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tally is close to 100. This difference has resulted in several bills being stuck in the upper house, and no constitutional amendment can pass without Congress explicitly voting in favour of it in full numbers.
This supremacy will see a decline in 2016. If we count all the nominated members against Congress, this is how the Rajya Sabha constitution is most likely to change in 2016 –
The NDA is likely to gain nine seats (mostly via nominated members and BJP gaining one seat in Bihar) while the UPA will likely end up losing 15 seats. Congress alone may lose nine seats via nominated members changing and losses in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Rajasthan. The gains in Kerala and Karnataka will not sufficiently offset Congress decline.
As Congress slowly loses the grip over Rajya Sabha proceedings, it will find disrupting legislative business increasingly difficult. The BJP will have easier truck with the regional parties when it comes to getting key bills passed.
Starting with the budget session in 2017, BJP should be able to push through almost every bill – barring constitutional amendments – with some tact and much lesser floor management effort vis-a-vis what was expended in the last four Parliamentary sessions.
Congress needs to showcase state level leadership
As we had mentioned in our previous article on Congress, state leaders in the party would have started clamouring for more autonomy had the party lost the elections in Bihar. While that hurdle has been successfully overcome by Congress for the time being, it is a matter of time before various state leaders start scrambling again for space.
Captain Amrinder Singh in Punjab got what he wanted, and there is increasing pressure on Congress to replace its current leaders in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. Even in Chhatisgarh, the party has had to issue a show cause notice to ex Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, following an expose showing allegations of horse-trading over MLAs.
With corruption cases against Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh and initial Enforcement Directorate (ED) probes against leaders in Rajasthan and Haryana, the party will end up spending a lot of time in sorting local leadership issues rather than rebuilding the organization bottom-up.
And needs to address the central leadership issue
Beyond the theatrics of the court appearances by senior Congress leaders in support of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case, there is no sign whatsoever that Rahul Gandhi has improved his broader appeal.
Even as the anti-incumbency against the Modi government begins to shape up, there is no visible sign of Rahul Gandhi personally cashing in on it and emerging as a viable alternative to the Prime Minister. In fact, a recent newspaper poll showed that the personal acceptance of Narendra Modi remained a high of 73% across the country, having dropped only fractionally over the year. Even time tested allies of Congress such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have expressed clear reservations over Rahul Gandhi’s ability to drive the party, and the party’s appalling behaviour in the Parliament in 2015 winter session is unlikely to buy them any favour from the public at large.
Till Rahul Gandhi proposes alternatives rather than criticizing everything that the Modi government has to offer, he is unlikely to gain in a one on one face off with the Prime Minister.
All in all, Congress will continue to rely on BJP, its own allies, sluggish economy and some luck to make progress in 2016 like it did in 2015.
In 2015, all the four factors worked well for Congress. The BJP obliged by faltering in Delhi and in Bihar electorally and running a sub-par communication effort, both within the party and the government.
The economy staged a minor, almost painful recovery, but the poor monsoon deepened the agrarian crisis. Congress had strong allies in Bihar and with BJP retreating in a shell; Congress got good airtime through the year attacking the government.
In 2016, all four factors seem to betray Congress. Post Bihar, there are some initial signs that the BJP as well as the government is getting more vocal. Congress will need allies and dollops of luck to retain Assam. In other three election bound states, it will have to fight a lone battle. The Indian Met Department (IMD) which got the 2015 monsoon prediction spot on has made an initial prediction of a normal 2016 monsoon. If the economic conditions improve and Modi government’s infrastructure push shows results, Congress will get deprived of talking points on economy too. This may spell bad news for Congress in 2016.
And then there’s the National Herald case – which may prove to be the dark horse in defining the party’s fortunes. If the case results in any kind of action on either Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, the party will be left with no option but to catapult Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the forefront of Indian politics.
On the other hand, if the case is found to be weak and the legal system acquits the mother-son duo, they can bounce back strongly on a high moral ground. At any rate, the case will keep the Gandhis busy in March and April, further complicating the state poll management process.
Congress is looking at a difficult 2016 as of now. The safe money will be on Congress ending the year on a weaker note from where it starts.
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