Congress' decision to go solo in upcoming Assembly polls will help party ascertain its position, size up likely allies for 2019

Political pundits will have us believe that the Congress' failure to stitch a broad alliance of Opposition parties will render difficult its task of winning the forthcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

In case the Congress is unable to win at least two out these three states, they say, it would besmirch the leadership credentials of its president, Rahul Gandhi, and raise serious doubts about his ability to cobble together an Opposition front to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Such a dire analysis ignores the real significance that the Assembly elections have for the Opposition parties — it is their last chance to gauge the relative strength of each other before they enter into negotiations to craft an electoral alliance against the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Viewed from this perspective, the Congress' decision to go solo in the three states is paradoxically conducive for Opposition unity.

Congress decision to go solo in upcoming Assembly polls will help party ascertain its position, size up likely allies for 2019

Rahul Gandhi greets people during a roadshow in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. PTI

As of now, there are three basic drivers of Opposition politics. One is the belief that anti-incumbency has set in against the Modi government. Its strength, though, is debatable, which brings into play the second driver — the best possibility of dislodging the Modi government in 2019 is through an alliance in every state. Which party gets how many seats will depend on its proven electoral strength, which is also the third driver of Opposition politics.

Barring two parties, the Opposition is a medley of regional outfits that have a footprint in just one state. One of the two exceptions is the Congress, which, regardless of having shrunk, commands a national identity and pockets of influence countrywide.

The other is the Bahujan Samaj Party — it is a significant player in Uttar Pradesh and also boasts of a sizeable vote share in several states, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where it can become a factor behind a party failing to win. The BSP’s strength lies in its ability to pull in the votes of Dalits, who, like Brahmins, are a social group with a pan-India presence.

On paper at least, a Congress-BSP alliance could have been formidable in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. For such an alliance to fructify, it was imperative for the BSP to make a demand for reasonable number of seats. This is because the three states are just a few in which the Congress can hope to win on its own.

Regardless of losing them over the last 15 years, its hope in the three states continues to kindle because the electoral contests there are bipolar. Consequently, the Congress will not want a third party to emerge in the three states to undermine its future prospects there. Once relegated to the third spot, the Congress tends to slip into some kind of terminal decline. Think Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

But BSP leader Mayawati, quite clearly, sought to exploit the Congress' desperation for significant victories before the 2019 polls to reverse the decline of her own party. In Madhya Pradesh, the party’s vote share dropped from 8.97 percent in 2008 to 6.29 percent in 2013. In Rajasthan, it vote share declined from 7.6 percent in 2009 to 3.37 percent in 2013. In Chhattisgarh, the BSP’s 6.11 percent of votes in 2008 was halved five years later.

For sure, BSP votes are concentrated in certain pockets that give it a heft — for instance, in Matsya region of Rajasthan and Bundelkhand area in Madhya Pradesh. Yet this factor alone cannot justify Mayawati’s demand for seats that were palpably disproportionate to her party’s vote share. For instance, she is said to have demanded 50 seats in Madhya Pradesh on the basis of the 2013 vote share of 6.29 percent.

This was an unreasonable demand because there was nothing to suggest an upswing in the BSP’s fortunes in Madhya Pradesh since 2013. True, the Dalits of Madhya Pradesh have been assertive in recent months, as evinced during the 2 April bandh against the Supreme Court judgement diluting the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

But Mayawati does not have the same significance for Dalits in Madhya Pradesh as she has for them in Uttar Pradesh. Their alienation cannot automatically translate into votes for the BSP either in Madhya Pradesh or in Rajasthan.

In fact, Mayawati’s demand for seats was an attempt at crafting a win-win situation for herself. Had the Congress aligned with the BSP and given her even half or 20 the 50 seats she demanded in Madhya Pradesh, a victory for the alliance would have been credited to the BSP. A share in power would have overnight consolidated her Dalit vote bank as it happened in Uttar Pradesh in the decade following the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In such a scenario, the BSP could well have become the 'third front' in Madhya Pradesh and, more significantly, erode the Dalit base of the Congress. It could have consequently made the Congress dependent on the BSP for 2019 — and even beyond. After having been turfed out from one state after another, the Congress will be chary that it should, for uncertain gains of today, weaken itself in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh for all times to come.

Another significant factor behind the Congress’ decision not to concede to Mayawati’s demand was the findings of its internal survey. It conclusively showed that the BSP is no longer a player in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress feels more apprehensive of Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan, Gondwana Gantantra Party, and SAPAKS (Samanya Pichhda Varg Alpsankhyak Karmachari Sangathan) Samaj Party, a bunch of anti-reservationists, chipping away at its votes than what it thinks the BSP can.

In fact, the internal survey showed the Aam Aadmi Party could bag, depending on the candidates it fields, anywhere between three percent and six percent of votes — the upper limit equal to the BSP’s vote share of 2013. In Rajasthan, the Congress feels the wind is blowing so strongly for it that it made no sense to accommodate Mayawati.

In a way then, Mayawati’s demand for seats from the Congress was deliberately designed to fail. Her logic seems to have been that should the Congress fail to win Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan or even one of them, she can go to town, as will political pundits and psephologists, pointing to what the verdict could have been had the Congress and the BSP tied up. Only then will the Congress come under pressure before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to align with the BSP in states where it has a single-digit vote share.

In other words, Mayawati did not wish to make it easy for the Congress to win without enhancing her gains. A weak Congress provides her scope to expand her Dalit base outside of Uttar Pradesh in the long run. Unreasonable demands dashed the possibility of an alliance and provided her the opportunity to blame the Congress for being communalist and casteist.

Likewise, the Congress did not concede to Mayawati’s demands because it would have conveyed the impression that it lacks the confidence to win on its own.

It would have been a poor strategy to accept that it is weak in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh without ascertaining, through elections, that it can no longer win these states even with the BJP encumbered by 15 years of anti-incumbency. It could also have inspired its potential allies in other states to demand seats disproportionate to their strength.

On the other hand, should it win Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh on its own, it will enhance its bargaining power in negotiations for seats before the 2019 elections. More significantly, it will also enable the Congress to become the glue for Opposition unity and provide a national perspective to an alliance largely comprising regional outfits.

Whether or not the Congress performs well in the Assembly elections, the failure of the Opposition to unite in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will make the business of forming an anti-BJP alliance less messy in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP and its allies won 73 out of 80 seats in 2014. A Congress-BSP alliance in the three states, and possible victories as a consequence, could have had made the two parties mount pressure on Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav into giving a larger share of seats to them. This possibility has receded for the time being.

It will recede even further in case the Congress performs well in the forthcoming Assembly elections. Mayawati will then have to redefine her ambitions — and concentrate on keeping the Congress out of Uttar Pradesh, where her fortunes have been on the downswing since 2008. It will push both Yadav and Mayawati to stick together.

Regardless of what the pundits say, the Congress’ decision not to have an alliance in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will clarify to it and others its own strength and consequently facilitate Opposition unity, not diminish its possibility.

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Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 17:53:34 IST

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