The year 2021 was another forgettable year for India’s GOP- the Indian National Congress. It lost power in the Union Territory of Puducherry, drew a blank in West Bengal and failed to wrest power from the Left in the state of Kerala. Despite stitching a grand alliance of like-minded opposition parties in Assam, the Congress failed to come back to power in the key Northeastern state. It copped a lot of criticism for dragging down its alliance in Assam. The Congress, which contested 95 out of the 126 seats in the state, had a dismal strike-rate of 30%. Its allies fared much better-managing to win 21 of the 31 seats they contested with a far more impressive strike-rate of almost 70%.
The free-fall of the Congress coincided with the rise of regional satraps like Mamata Banerjee, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan. The results of the Assembly elections held in 2021 and the subsequent political developments reinforced the view that the balance of power in India’s opposition has swung in favour of regional satraps. A lethargic, faction-ridden Congress is being seen as an electoral liability by many well wishers of India’s opposition. Some have even hinted at the possibility of the formation of a national anti-BJP front of regional parties without the Congress.
Despite its far from impressive electoral record, its failure to even appoint a full time working president since 2019 and its sorry state of affairs, it will not be practically feasible for anti-BJP forces to not include the Congress in their 2024 plans. To understand the electoral math, one can divide the country into five clusters. It then becomes evident why the Congress becomes an indispensable component of any pan India formation that aims to halt the BJP juggernaut.
Prevalent political scenario (Based on the outcome of 2019 LS elections and the most recent Assembly elections.)
||Number of Lok Sabha Seats
||States where the Congress and the BJP are engaged in a direct contest.
Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and UTs- Ladakh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.
States where the Congress along with other regional outfits are major challengers to BJP . Eg JD(S) in Karnataka, Shiv Sena and NCP in Maharashtra.
|Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra and UTs- Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi.
States where the Congress is an able junior ally in an anti-BJP alliance led by strong regional outfits.
|Bihar, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu.
States where the Congress is a dominant electoral force and the BJP is struggling to even gain a toe-hold.
|Punjab, Kerala, Meghalaya and the UTs Pondicherry and Lakshadweep.
States where the Congress is almost non-existent and strong regional parties are the principal opposition to the BJP.
|Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Sikkim.
Cluster A: This includes 125 Lok Sabha constituencies from 13 states and 4 Union territories where the Congress and the BJP are engaged in a direct contest. As of today, the Congress is the only major opposition to the BJP in this cluster of seats. However, other opposition parties, like the TMC in Goa and Manipur and AAP in Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand have started aggressively campaigning to make inroads in some of these states. However, it seems highly unlikely that they will displace the Congress before the 2024 polls. So, for all practical purposes, the Congress will be locked in a direct battle with the BJP in these 125 seats.
Cluster B: Includes 102 seats from the states of Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka and the Union Territories of Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir. In most of these seats, the nature of political competition is completely bipolar between the Congress and the BJP. But in some of these states, regional parties are dominant and are the primary challengers to the BJP. For instance, the Janata Dal Secular) in Karnataka (especially in the Old Mysore region), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in some districts of Assam and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi.
However, in a majority of these seats, the regional parties are playing second fiddle to the Congress and the grand old party is the primary challenger to the saffron party.
Cluster C: The three states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu account for 93 seats. Despite being on the decline in these states, the Congress continues to be a handy junior ally in these states. As of today, the Congress is a junior ally in the ruling alliance governments in the states of Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. In Bihar, the Congress had snapped ties with its ally the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) during the Assembly bypolls in October 2021. But the disastrous performance of the RJD and the Congress in the bypolls and developments since then make it amply clear that the two parties will set aside all their differences to contest together in 2024.
Cluster D: This cluster includes states where the Congress is a dominant electoral force and the BJP is struggling to make inroads. In Punjab, where the BJP continues to be on the fringes, the INC is engaged in a fight with the Aam Aadmi Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal. In Kerala, the BJP/ NDA has managed to maintain a vote-share of 10 to 15 percentage points in recent Assembly and parliamentary polls, but it has failed to bag seats. Kerala politics, by and large, remains bipolar. The two-party system seems entrenched in the electoral politics of the state. With the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) having a very stable support base, the chances of BJP making any significant gains in the short-run are slim.
Cluster E: The biggest cluster with 186 seats which includes the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, also happens to be the Congress party’s weakest zone. In these six states, strong regional parties like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) are staunchly resisting the BJP. In Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim, both the Congress and the BJP are virtually absent. In Telangana and Odisha, the rise of the BJP has coincided with and accelerated the fall of the Congress. With no signs of alliance with K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s TRS or the BJD in Odisha, the Congress is on its own in these states. In all likelihood, 2024 will be a direct battle between the TRS and the BJP in India’s youngest state. In Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, the Congress has been in a state of free fall. The party’s vote share in these states has fallen below 7% and there are no visible signs of revival or resurgence.
Congress Isn’t Dispensable
It is undeniable that the Congress has been losing ground across the country. It has been panned for its dismal head-to-head record against the BJP and for being the weak link in opposition alliances in recent times. The Congress has weakened considerably in the last decade. But the weakened Congress is not weak enough to be left out of any pan-India anti-BJP project – a formal front or an informal understanding of anti-BJP forces.
The grand old party still has a vote share of about 20%. In 2019, it won 54 seats and was the runner-up in 209 Lok Sabha constituencies. A cluster-wise analysis makes it very clear that leaving out the Congress is not practically feasible for any front or formation that aspires to seriously take on the BJP. The Congress is the main opposition to the BJP in the first two clusters accounting for 227 Lok Sabha constituencies. Out of these 227, in almost 160 constituencies, it is the sole opposition that exists to the Bharatiya Janata Party. If one were to add seats from Cluster D where the Congress is the dominant political force and the BJP is yet to make any inroads, the number goes upto 264. In another 93 seats across the states of Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Bihar, the Congress is more than an able junior ally. Thus, there are at least 350 odd seats where the Congress continues to be electorally relevant.
2022: A Milestone Year
While it is evident that given the prevalent political situation, it is impossible to fight or stop the BJP without the Congress, a serious cause of concern for the party and for India’s opposition forces is the extremely unimpressive record of the party in direct contests with the BJP. The Congress party’s strike-rate against the BJP was just 12% in 2014. In 2019, the two parties were locked in a direct contest- in position one or two- in 192 seats. The BJP won 176 of these seats as the Congress’ strike-rate fell from 12% to an even more measly 8%. This pattern of the Congress performing miserably in direct contests with the BJP has also been a recurrent theme in Assembly polls since 2013 with the exception of December 2018 when the party defeated the incumbent BJP in three states- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party have launched an aggressive campaign to expand their base beyond their traditional territories. While the TMC has been defending its expansion plans by arguing that it is only foraying into states where a strong opposition to the BJP does not exist, the real reason behind the aggressive expansion plans may be to give a reality check to the Congress. In the past, the Congress has been at the receiving end for its ‘big brother’ attitude. It has been lambasted for acting as an old zamindaar living in delusion, failing to come to terms with its shrinking electoral space. In all probability, the expansion spree of parties like the TMC is aimed at forcing the Congress to accept that it can no longer act as the natural leader of any anti-BJP alliance. At the same time, this might force the party to take a backseat in states and seats where other opposition parties are in a better position to dislodge the BJP. In return, the opposition parties may pause their expansion plans in regions where the Congress is strong and better positioned to take on the BJP. Consequently, the Congress may end up contesting less than 350 seats for the first time ever in 2024. The Opposition’s best bet will be to invest in a ‘horse for courses’ strategy – ensuring that a cannibalisation of opposition votes is avoided and the strongest party/ candidate to take on the BJP is fielded from every state or seat.
The year 2022 will be the perfect litmus test for the GOP to test and prove its ability to take on the BJP in direct contests. In three states- Manipur, Uttarakhand, Goa, the Congress is in a direct fight with the BJP. In the latter half of the year, it will be fighting the BJP in two more states- Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. If the Congress manages to put an impressive showing in these states, it will boost its credentials as the natural leader of the anti-BJP formation and also act as a huge morale booster for the party which has rarely won in direct contests with the BJP in recent times.
On the flipside, a poor showing in these states will strengthen the argument that the Congress is a spent force or an electoral liability. It will also help the cause of other opposition forces like the TMC and the AAP which are looking to expand beyond their own backyard with ambitions of replacing the Congress in many states across the country.
The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. His interests vary from politics, psephology, and journalism to regional Indian cinema. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit and can be reached at [email protected]