Priyanka Gandhi’s formal entry into politics dispels any notion of a ‘fixed’ match between the Congress and the BSP-SP alliance in Uttar Pradesh. It also represents a shift in strategy for India’s grand old party.
Despite announcing that the party would contest all 80 seats in UP, many believed that the Congress would form tactical alliances with the BSP-SP to undermine the BJP. Instead, appointing Priyanka as general secretary (east) in UP suggests that the Congress is going for broke in the 2019 general elections. This aggressive stance is a departure from the guerrilla tactics that it successfully deployed to thwart the BJP in by-polls and state elections over the past four years.
Recognising its dwindling public support in 2014, the Congress often backed candidates put forth by regional parties with the sole aim of defeating the BJP. Even in Karnataka, the Congress let the JD(S) pick a chief minister, despite winning twice as many seats as its ally.
However, the party’s recent victories in direct contests against the BJP appear to have changed Rahul Gandhi’s thinking. The decision to not pursue a pre-poll alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh and Priyanka’s elevation in UP suggest that the party plans to turn the election into a presidential-style contest against the BJP.
This could be a fatal misjudgement. In the absence of a pre-poll alliance, opposition parties may end up dividing each other’s vote share, benefiting the BJP.
An impressive comeback
The Congress’s victory in three state assemblies in December was an impressive comeback following its many losses over the past four years. However, the jury is still out over the root cause of the BJP’s defeat. It isn’t clear whether the setbacks represented a loss of faith in the BJP’s leadership on a regional level or national level.
The Congress and BJP’s vote share was neck to neck in two states (Congress: 40.9, BJP: 41 in MP and Congress: 39.3, BJP: 38.8 in Rajasthan). A miniscule swing in votes could have drastically altered the outcome. This result holds an important lesson for the Congress: namely stitching pre-poll alliances with regional parties is imperative to defeat the BJP. A lesson that appears to be unheeded.
In the absence of a pre-poll alliance, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi could easily tip the scales in the BJP’s favour. A recent opinion poll has found that Modi’s approval rating has fallen to 46% (the lowest since he assumed office). However, he still leads Rahul Gandhi, his closest challenger, by a healthy 12%. A presidential style contest would then have only one winner, underscoring the opposition’s need to unite against a formidable opponent.
The arithmetic underpinning India’s elections
Despite many swings in the eventual outcomes, the solid arithmetic underpinning India’s general elections has remained constant over the past two decades. The two national parties, Congress and BJP, have received about 50% of the overall vote share, with regional parties taking in the remaining 50%. Based on these numbers, a pre-poll ‘Mahagatbandhan’ promises an opposition victory before a single vote is cast. However, bringing together diverse ideologies and many PM aspirants necessitates significant compromise. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t seem interested in compromise.
Instead, a resurgent Congress appears determined to reclaim its tag as the foremost political party in India. Past voting patterns partly vindicates this strategy. Voters have a propensity to support national parties over regional parties in general elections, as national issues trump regional identity. The Congress won 21 seats from UP in the 2009 general elections, despite failing miserably in the preceding assembly elections.
The Congress must also face the BJP in head to head contests in key states where it can’t rely on allies. Compromising with regional parties could dampen the spirits of its party workers. The Congress’s rank-and-file are likely to be more enthused by the prospect of an absolute victory. And looking beyond the general elections, Rahul Gandhi faces the long-term challenge of rebuilding the party’s organisation across the country.
The single largest party
In the absence of a majority, the single largest party would be first invited to attempt to form a government. Most exit polls seem to suggest that this would be the BJP. This would strengthen Modi’s hand in negotiations with regional parties. Although many leaders have previously announced their disdain for the BJP, the lure of ministerial positions could weaken their resolve. And the difficulty of running a hodgepodge alliance with many assertive regional leaders won’t be lost on opposition parties. Testy relations between the JD(S) and Congress in Karnataka highlight the difficulty of running a government between two evenly-matched parties. Extrapolating that to ten parties is a recipe for chaos.
John Allen Paulos could easily have been referring to Indian elections when he wrote, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” The 2019 elections are in many ways a break from the past. The potential eligibility of NRI voters through proxies and the prominent role played by digital media platforms will heighten this uncertainty. A recent study found that almost 27% of the electorate decided who to vote for on the election day or a few days before. Rahul Gandhi might be banking on the ‘feel-good’ factor of Priyanka’s elevation to convince this hesitant voter.
However, in the weeks leading up to the election, Rahul faces a difficult dilemma. Should he bring together a broad-based coalition of opposition parties to defeat the BJP, but potentially undermine his party’s interests? Or does he project the Congress as the main alternative to the BJP and count on growing public disenchantment to propel his party to power? Recent political developments suggest that he is leaning towards the latter. His choice is likely to shape the outcome of these elections.