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Should the Congress play from back foot to beat BJP?

The Congress' predicament is that it must improve its abysmal 44-seat Lok Sabha tally to about 120-130 if it wants to head any coalition government

Firstpost print Edition

A political party, quite like a person, can appear to be shooting itself in the foot when it is faced with a dilemma. This is exactly the kind of uncomfortable position that the Congress finds itself in today, even as it meets in Ahmedabad to chalk out a strategy for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The party’s predicament is that it must improve its abysmal 44-seat Lok Sabha tally to about 120-130 if it wants to head a coalition government, in case the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is unable to draw a majority.

The Congress is absent from several politically significant states. It, therefore, depends on regional formations to stop the BJP from picking up seats in these parts. So, the Congress’s dilemma is whether it should postpone its own revival so that regional parties remain strong opponents to the BJP. This is important for the Congress too because another term for the BJP could make its revival seem unattainable.

 Should the Congress play from back foot to beat BJP?

A confident Congress is holding out for more than its ‘fair share’ of seats, irritating its allies

Two recent instances underscored this dilemma: when the Congress’s talks with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the National Capital Territory’s seven Lok Sabha seats, and the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party for the eighty crucial seats of Uttar Pradesh failed.

Anti-BJP elements, including regional parties and sections of the intelligentsia, view the Congress’s choice of this moment to script its own revival with alarm. It is possible that the Congress will go it alone in several states, leading to confusion among voters and thereby help the BJP’s surge.

Yet, cadres and leaders of the Congress are resisting expectations to postpone revival. They view the elevation of Priyanka Gandhi, party president Rahul Gandhi’s sister, to general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, as a step toward wooing lower-backward, Muslim and upper-caste voters into their fold, if not for 2019 then the next assembly election in 2022.

Even if regional parties successfully restrict the BJP’s gains in states where the Congress is weak, by going solo in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh it could confuse voters. This is even more possible considering how slim victory margins were in the 2014 Lok Sabha election: BJP won 43.7 per cent of the votes in UP while the SP, BSP and Rashtriya Lok Dal, fighting separately, ended up just 0.5 per cent ahead of their rival.

Delhi was not too different: had AAP and the Congress allied for 2019, the belief is, they could have wrested six of the city-state’s seven seats from the BJP. This is because in 2014, when there was a wave in the BJP’s favour, it got 46.63 per cent votes whereas the AAP-Congress combined vote share was 48.3 per cent—a small but distinct edge. In Delhi, former chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s inability to overlook her party’s crushing defeat in 2015, when AAP swept the assembly polls, is being seen as one reason why this alliance failed.

At the same time, AAP’s offer of two seats put the Congress in the position of a junior partner, which it doesn’t want. Meanwhile, Arvind Kejriwal’s party resisted the Congress’s expectation of three seats because an additional seat amounts to sacrificing 30 assembly constituencies. This AAP was unwilling to do just one year before the Delhi polls. Furthermore, Congress sources say, the party has revived in parts of Delhi. Presumably, they believe that winning two, even three, seats in Delhi would hardly impact government-formation at the Centre this summer.

Conversely, if the elections are a close call, the AAP-Congress alliance could have cut the BJP’s tally and the national scorecard could significantly alter. Consider how the BJP has sacrificed 13 seats in Bihar—it is contesting on 17 instead of 30 this election. With Delhi’s seven, it adds up to twenty seats on which the Opposition could try cornering the BJP. This is why the Congress’s refusal to ally drew angry reactions from AAP leaders: they questioned how serious the Congress is about creating a viable anti-BJP front which undercuts it on every possible seat.

Other structural issues haunt the Congress beyond the Hindi heartland and Delhi. Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) is poised among the winning horses in Andhra Pradesh but appears permanently estranged from the Congress. In 2009, Andhra contributed 29 Members of Parliament to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. Even after creation of Telangana, it has 25 seats.

The Jagan-Congress dispute has roots in the Congress’s refusal to accept dynastic succession in states—a principle it accepts at the Centre. After his father, YSR Rajasekhara Reddy, died in 2009, Jagan claimed his right to succeed to his position, which the Congress high command shot down. The consequence is that the dominant Reddy community supports the YSRCP while Telugu Desam Party—whose now-broken alliance with the BJP won 17 seats in 2014—has got Kamma votes, leaving the Congress high and dry.

By not fielding candidates from Amethi and Rae Bareli, the SP and BSP are making space for the Congress. Yet, enthused by wins in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, it reportedly seeks no less than 12 to 14 seats.

The buzz within Opposition circles is that a tactical alliance could still be sewn up. The drawback of this strategy is evident: candidates supposed to lose may try to win, to secure tickets in future elections. Voters could get very confused by all the uncertainty and jostling for tickets.

A fresh Opposition strategy is now more likely to emerge from regional formations, who are wary of the tendency of Pulwama-like incidents (and the 10 per cent reservation given to the general category) to neutralise their politics. To counter the rhetoric of nationalism and resurgence from the national parties, soon they may launch caste-based polarisations.

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