After two turbulent years in power, the 2011 assembly elections have provided the Congress some reason to smile. But don't be surprised if deep creases of worry keep peeping out from behind that mask of smug satisfaction. The party's footprint is shrinking across the country. Powerful regional satraps are scripting new success stories in states, pushing the Congress into the political fringes. Reduced to being a bit player in so many states, the party may end up being a inconsequential player at the Centre in 2014 too.
How? Here’s a hypothetical evaluation of the party in the light of its present position.
The Congress is precariously poised in the East. In Bihar, its vote share is close to a mere nine percent; in Orissa the party is in the doldrums with serious factional fights and leadership crises; in West Bengal, with a vote share hovering around 10%, it is now at the mercy of the Trinamool Congress. Assam and other North-Eastern states do not have the big numbers to prop the party up.
In the West it fares poorly as well. Gujarat is virtually a lost cause and Maharashtra is a dicey proposition with so many scandals involving its ministers. Down South, Tamil Nadu holds no promise. The party’s vote percentage was 9.3 percent in the recently held assembly polls. In any case, it will need to ride piggyback on either of the Dravidian parties for success. In Karnataka, it’s a three-way division of votes among the Congress the BJP and the Janata Dal (U). Andhra Pradesh, the only saving grace for the party, throws up a two-fold challenge besides the TDP -- the YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy and anti-incumbency factor. Even with all of Kerala’s 20 seats – a near impossibility – the party is unlikely to notch up a respectable total in the South.
In Madhya Pradesh the BJP is firmly in saddle and a complete Congress sweep is difficult. The North is more tricky. In the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh the Congress is struggling. In the three-way fight here, the party with its best performance might just fare a notch better than the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party and end up with 35 seats from the total 85. If Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana deliver a split mandate the party will certainly fall way short of 272 seats required to form the government.
It creates a difficult situation. The party remains at the mercy of its coalition partners and open to political arm-twisting. It gets a lesser freedom in policy matters and even in the selection of ministers too. It’s a long shot yet, but India’s Grand Old Party has a tough challenge ahead if it fails to re-establish it pan-Indian presence.
But the party's efforts at reviving the factionalism-ridden organizations in states have been dismal. It has failed to throw up new leaders and infuse new energy into the rank and file. Despite party’s youth mascot Rahul Gandhi’s vigorous campaign in Bihar, it won just four seats and ended up with a vote share of a poor eight percent. Interestingly, the victories came in the seats where he did not campaign. In the just concluded elections, only 11 out of 35 of Rahul’s candidates won in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and West Bengal. A bad performance from the Congress’ cure-all agent indeed!
What ails the party? To cut a long story short, it all boils down to lack of communication between the party’s top leadership and the grassroots workers. The disconnect is visible. It has to do mostly with the confusion at the centre over policy matters. With the top leadership talking in different voices on crucial issues, especially economic matters and land problems, what trickles down below is a garbled message. The leaders down the ladder have nothing significant to communicate to people. The old social welfare rhetoric has lost its gloss from overuse.
Regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Naveen Patnaik and Shivraj Singh Chauhan have established themselves as a viable alternative to the Congress by providing effective and responsive administration in their respective states. Prospering on the Congress' agenda, they have put the party in a situation from which it will find hard to recover.
The party has hit the tipping point. It will need some magic trick to recover from the current situation.