By Pavan K Varma
Two myths about the Congress party need to be re-examined. The first is that, given its electoral reversals, it is of little consequence in political calculations.
However, it is sobering to remember that even in its shrunk state, Congress is still the principal opposition in states as far apart as Kerala and Assam. Next to BJP it is the only pan-India party, and even when reduced to just 52 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2019 parliamentary elections, it garnered 12 crore votes (BJP got 22 crore) and 20% of the electoral vote share.
Secondly, even though the BJP campaign to ridicule Rahul Gandhi has been impactful, the truth is that, personalities apart, the decline of Congress began in 1989, much predating the emergence of both Rahul and Narendra Modi.
Since the government of Rajiv Gandhi, Congress has never been in power at the Centre with an absolute majority. When in power, it has ruled either as a minority party, in the term of Narasimha Rao, or in coalition during the UPA years.
The reasons for this consistent decline are many: The migration of the traditional Congress voter to other parties; the rise of strong regional parties; the renewed emergence of BJP; and the lack of leadership, organisation, planning and strategic vision within the Congress party.
If Congress was the giant amoeba in the past, ingesting communities from all sections as part of its umbrella coalition, BJP has now emerged as the pole of the electoral fabric. It has assiduously cultivated the Hindu vote; and within it, even castes which were earlier attracted to Congress, such as the Brahmans, have now noticeably switched fealties. The Hindutva card yoked to targeted welfarism, has helped BJP co-opt significant sections of the Dalit and the OBC communities too.
Will the 2024 parliamentary elections thus be a cakewalk for the saffron party? Although his aura of invincibility has cracked, and there is a verifiable drop in his approval ratings, there is little doubt that Narendra Modi is still the most popular leader in the country, and that BJP, supported by RSS and a huge organised cadre, is a formidable electoral machine.
Yet, the curious factor is that the BJP’s geographical support base is rather narrow for a national party. Strong regional parties have held it at bay in the entire southeastern swathe of India – excluding Karnataka but including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and West Bengal. These six states constitute 164 parliamentary seats.
The real electoral catchment area of BJP is the north and the west (with the exception of the north-east, but that is a total of only 25 seats). In UP, accounting for 80 seats, BJP’s principal opponents are SP and BSP. SP’s current constraint is that its vote base is largely limited to the Yadavs and the Muslims, not sufficient to win an election, and even the Yadav vote was fractured in 2019, with large numbers of young Yadavs voting for BJP.
Mayawati appears to have been co-opted by BJP. With Congress comatose in the state, the advantage is clearly with BJP. In Bihar, accounting for 39 seats, BJP in partnership with JDU appears to have an edge over the Muslim-Yadav vote base of RJD. Again, the electoral erosion of Congress becomes a key factor.
However, the real Achilles heel of Congress is in those states where it is directly posited against BJP: MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab (where the Akali Dal is a factor), Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka (where the JDS is present too). These states account for around 150 seats.
Here BJP’s advantage is that its strike rate against Congress has improved from 84% in 2014 to even higher in 2019. That is the reason why BJP, notwithstanding its narrow geographical base, comes up with an absolute majority. The challenge before a resurrected Congress is thus starkly clear: A dramatic improvement in the direct electoral faceoffs with BJP.
Regional parties can only do so much; their parts do not add up to a coherent pan-Indian whole. Knowing this, Congress must rise to the challenge. It is the original national party, the party of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Sardar Patel, the party that led India to freedom, the party whose core ideology corresponds to the idea of India as conceived by our founding fathers, and whose demise could unleash forces that are inimical to the basic tenets of our Republic.
If – and that is a big if – Congress were to genuinely revamp itself, then, in conjunction with anti-BJP regional parties, and an entry in UP and Bihar, it could give BJP a run for its money in 2024.
In spite of getting an absolute majority, the BJP vote share in 2014 and 2019 was 31% and 37.4% respectively. The majority of Indians did not vote for the party. There is a fight waiting to be fought. Will Congress wake up and smell the coffee?