After a series of election defeats since 2014, it’s tempting to write off the Congress as a leading national force. With few visible signs of a Congress revival, some argue that India’s regional parties are now the main bulwark against the BJP.
This certainly seems to be the case with the next big state election: Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The Congress is very much the underdog, with the BSP seemingly best positioned to beat back the BJP. The Congress’ current irrelevance was shown up — if in a small way — in the two recent UP by-elections where, in the absence of the BSP, voters dissatisfied with the Samajwadi Party gravitated towards the BJP.
But it may well be premature to write off the Congress. Even in its present nadir, the Congress is either the ruling party or the principal opposition in six of India’s 12 largest states (which account for 80% of the Lok Sabha seats). The BJP, at its current zenith, is one or the other in six states, although it clearly hopes to add UP to this list soon. Obviously ruling a state counts for more than being the opposition, but the Congress remains the only feasible alternative in a big swath of the country. Recall that the party ruled only two such states (Orissa and Madhya Pradesh) when Sonia Gandhi took over in March 1998. In military terms, the party’s intentions might seem suicidal to some, but its capabilities cannot be ignored.
Things will remain tricky for the party through early 2017. It will need to put in a respectable performance in UP, which at a minimum means winning enough seats to affect government formation in the state. It will have to fight off a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and retain some of the smaller states. This won’t be easy: The BJP could lose a third of its 2014 UP vote of 42% and in a four-way race and still have a chance of winning the state.
But once the Congress is past this stage, opportunities may begin to open up in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are ruled by the BJP and together account for 91 of the 543 parliamentary seats. The Congress won just three of the 91 in 2014. As tempting as it is to project BJP’s invincibility indefinitely into the future, the fact is that all of these governments are vulnerable to a challenge, and the Congress will be the only party positioned to take advantage.
Gujarat has been plagued by a Patidar agitation and its chief minister is facing allegations of cronyism. The three-term Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments are also battling corruption charges, while Rajasthan tends to seesaw between the BJP and Congress (although the BJP will also be defending a large vote margin — as the AIADMK just managed in Tamil Nadu). The Congress will be in danger of losing its last major state, Karnataka, but the risks will weigh against the BJP.
So how does any of this matter? Despite the 2014 Modi wave, the national landscape is still shaped by state politics. While dissatisfaction with the UPA was obviously a factor, the data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that satisfaction with the ruling state government was perhaps the most important determinant of voting. Consider that the Congress’ 2014 vote share in Karnataka actually rose in comparison with 2009; but the BJP gained seats because of its merger with BS Yeddyurappa’s splinter party.
It is possible, as many commentators assert, that the Indian voter’s disenchantment with the Congress is irreversible. But it’s too easy to extrapolate the most recent trend into the future. Nationally, the Congress is positioned to the left of the BJP, ready to reap any disappointment with Narendra Modi’s development rhetoric, possesses a deep bench of younger leaders and has more boots on the ground than any other contender.
And if the party shakes off its stupor and survives the UP and Punjab elections, it has the chance to take the battle to the BJP heartland.
Amitabh Dubey is an analyst of politics and economic policy
The views expressed are personal