Without Its Allies, Congress Would Have Fared Even Worse in the Polls

The assembly polls in four states show that unless the Congress works to retain its existing support base while adding new voters, it may never be able to rise again.

Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Credit: PTI

Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Congress’s rout in four of the five states and Union territories that just went for elections has opened up a Pandora’s box within the party. Senior party leaders like Digvijaya Singh have already said that the party has done enough introspection and should now go for a ‘major surgery’ – though what has to be stitched up, cut out, transplanted or bypassed has not been spelt out. Off the record, many Congress leaders have questioned their leadership following the appalling performance of the party. Political commentators too have started to predict that the party could be staring at political oblivion in the near future. Dissent, both open and silent, has been brewing within the regional leaderships as well, according to some senior Congress leaders. The recent assembly election results mean that the Congress is holding fort only in seven states, down from 12 in 2012. Karnataka is the only big state where the party is still in power.

Most commentators have attributed the party’s decline to a variety of factors like leadership crises, ineffective political campaigns, inability to adapt to newer political conditions, inability to offer a new agenda to a fast-growing aspirational class and alienation from the backward communities and minorities. Because of these factors, the grand old party had to rely on state-specific alliances in the past few years. Barring Assam, where it contested on its own, it led the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala and played smaller ally to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Left in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively. The party’s performance in these states shows that the its strike rate as an ally has worsened from the last assembly polls, pointing to the fact that the electorate has gradually shifted away from the Congress in the last five years, even as it has stuck around with the party’s allies.

Tamil Nadu: Dragging the DMK down

Despite the fact that the DMK polled more votes than the Jayalalithaa-led All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), it lost the elections because of the poor performance of its allies, chief among them being the Congress. If ‘contested vote shares’ are taken into account, the Congress polled 36.46% in the 41 seats it fought as opposed to the DMK’s 41.05%. The DMK, in fact, polled more than the AIADMK, which got 40.78% votes in the 232 seats it contested. This indicates that the Congress could not stand up to the AIADMK’s might like the DMK did. The poor performance of the Congress is one of the biggest reasons for the defeat of the DMK, which could not muster enough seats to form the government despite putting up a much better performance than the last assembly polls.

The Congress could win only eight seats in the state. It had won five seats in 2011 with a 35.73% vote share in the 63 seats it contested, but it was also fighting anti-incumbency in the last assembly polls. The DMK-Congress alliance fared so poorly in 2011 that it was reduced to only 28 seats in the assembly.

The Congress’s performance was considered better last time, in the face of DMK’s ignominious defeat. This time it contested in fewer seats and its strike rate is better. However, the improvement in its figures is almost negligible compared to the significant improvement in the DMK’s performance. That the Congress could not capitalise on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Jayalalithaa government points to its lack of appeal among the masses and its continuously declining strength.

While it was a closely fought election wherever there was a direct contest between the AIADMK and DMK, with victory margins less than 2,500 votes in around 20 seats, it was almost a no-contest for the AIADMK wherever it was up against the Congress. Even in traditional party strongholds, the Congress fared poorly. For instance, in Madurai north, Ambattur and Attur, the Congress lost to the AIADMK by more than 15,000 votes.

Kerala: Losing ground to the BJP

Kerala stuck to its tradition of alternating between the UDF and Left Democratic Front (LDF) every five years. But a closer look at the electoral figures of the last two assembly polls clearly reveals that the Congress’s weight within the UDF has been falling constantly. In 2011, the Congress could win in only 38 constituencies out of the 81 it fought. It could still form the government as two of its most important allies, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress (Mani), performed stupendously well, getting the UDF just past the halfway mark in the 140-member assembly. The IUML won 20 of the 23 it contested and the KC(M) won 9 out of 15.

In comparison, the strike rate of the Congress’s principal opponent in the state, the CPI(M), was better in 2011. It won 45 out of the 84 seats it contested despite fighting anti-incumbency. In terms of vote share too, the CPI(M) did better than the Congress. The CPI(M) got 46.73% in the seats it contested and the Congress remained a notch below at 45.60%. Overall, the vote shares of the CPI(M) and the Congress in 2011 were 28.18% and 26.40% respectively.

In 2016, the incumbent Congress had to settle for only 22 seats with a vote share of 23.7%, a fall of around three percentage points. In comparison, its allies retained much of their vote share and seats. The IUML managed to win 18 seats, two less than 2011, while the KC(M) won six, three less than the last assembly polls. In terms of vote shares too, the IUML got 7.4%, only a marginal decline from its 7.92% in 2011. The KC(M) too saw a negligible decrease in its vote shares – from 4.94% to 4% this year.

In 2016, the Congress lost in most constituencies by massive margins. For instance, in 20 constituencies it lost by a margin of more than 20,000 votes, rare in the keenly-contested state of Kerala. In at least four other constituencies, the margin of its loss was more than 15,000. This may result in a significant drop of its contested vote shares. In its traditional stronghold, the party lost most of its votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies like the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS). In Thrissur district, the UDF lost all 13 seats to the LDF. The BJP did extremely well and secured more than 25,000 votes in most of these seats, indicating that the BJP and its allies are growing in Kerala at the cost of the Congress rather than the Left. This reflects the national picture in which the BJP is replacing the Congress gradually in its traditional strongholds.

West Bengal: Base intact

Despite the Trinamool Congress’s decisive victory, the only silver lining for the Congress in the recent assembly polls has been West Bengal. Even as a smaller partner, it managed to win a larger number of seats than the Left parties. The Congress got 44 seats out of the 90 it contested while the Left, which fought in the remaining constituencies of the 294-member assembly, managed only 33. As a partner of the TMC in 2011, the Congress had won 42 seats out of the 66 it had contested.

The Congress did reasonably well, especially when the Left could not stand up to TMC’s challenge. The Congress gained from the traditional Left votes while holding onto its own fort in the central Bengal districts of Malda and Murshidabad and some parts of north Bengal. Because of the alliance with the Left, the Congress, which used to be a prime player only in around 50 seats, got to contest in 90. The alliance helped it gain a foothold in districts like North 24 Paragnas, Purulia, Bankura, Hooghly, Bardhaman, Birbhum and Nadia. These are the districts where it has barely any organisational presence but managed to win quite a few seats.

For instance, it wrested the Bagdah and Noapara seat in North 24 Paragnas from the TMC, as also Bankura and Bishnupur in Bankura district. Similarly, it won the Champdani seat in Hooghly, where it has negligible presence. These are constituencies where the party has never been in contention, but was able to extract these seats from the Left in pre-poll bargaining.

In addition, unlike in other states, the Congress’s popularity in its traditional strongholds did not decrease. Despite the fact that some Left leaders like Mohammed Salim have accused the Congress of not transferring votes to LF candidates, the results show a different picture. Most Left candidates who fought from traditional Congress strongholds like Malda and Murshidabad benefitted from the alliance with the Congress and won easily. The opposite did not happen, except in a few seats mentioned above. The increase in Congress’s vote share from 9.09% in 2011 to 12.3% this year can be attributed to the alliance, but it is clear that the party also retained its historical vote base –  unlike in Tamil Nadu and Kerala – thus helping the party in clear wins. This, undoubtedly, must be good news for the party high command, which may hope to consolidate strength in newer areas where it has gained a foothold because of the alliance. The overall increase in its vote share and its competitive performances in seats even where it lost will also reflect in its contested vote shares. In 10 constituencies, the Congress finished a close second by a margin of less than 10,000 votes and in 10 other constituencies it lost by less than 20,000 votes. Such margins in Bengal are generally seen as small margins, given a history of polarised elections in the state.

Clearly, the alliances that the Congress formed was a clever political tactic. The party was decimated in Assam where it decided to contest alone. An analysis of the result throws up speculation that had the party gone to the polls with partners like the Bodoland People’s Front and a few other small parties, the result could have been different. However, the results also show that only when the party holds on to its own historical voters’ base, or works to create new base, can alliances yield positive results. For that to happen in the near future, the party has to take cues from the assembly polls and may have to take difficult decisions to come up with a comprehensive political plan, something like the ‘major surgery’ that Digvijaya Singh so candidly advocated.