Is there a national message from the May 13 state elections and by-elections verdict? For the Congress, the news is sombre. It has retained Assam in spectacular fashion but seen an expected sweep in Kerala reduced to a cliff-hanger.
In Tamil Nadu, the party won only a 10th of the seats it contested. Its half-a-dozen MLA presence in the new Tamil Nadu assembly matches its numbers in the Bihar legislature, elected six months ago.
Tamil Nadu and Bihar are very different states, but for the Congress they offer a similarity. In both, Rahul Gandhi worked hard and built Youth Congress reserves. In both, party functionaries spoke of a revival and the possibility of going it alone. In both, the optimism came to naught.
Tamil Nadu also indicates the taint and corruption associated with the Karunanidhi family have hurt the Congress. This could prove infectious. In Kerala, facing an eccentric but formidable Communist chief minister, the Congress was badly bruised.
While local issues determined the election, it is a fair argument that anti-incumbency against the state government was negated by anti-incumbency against the UPA government in New Delhi.
The by-elections also brought a grim bulletin. YS Jaganmohan Reddy smashed his Congress rival in Kadapa (Andhra Pradesh) and wrested the legacy of his father, the late YS Rajashekhara Reddy. What a tough-minded dissident could do to the Congress became apparent in Puducherry.
Here N Rangaswamy’s breakaway unit sunk the party that side-lined him. Will the scenario be repeated in Andhra Pradesh in 2014?
Given all this, two trends stand out. The Congress is a drag on partners (Tamil Nadu) and not pulling its weight in several state alliances (West Bengal). That apart, it is not growing on its own as it hoped to after its success in the Lok Sabha election of 2009. It has lost ground in Andhra Pradesh and is not as strong in Uttar Pradesh as it was even two years ago.
It has barely beaten the Left in Kerala. As the by-elections suggest, it has not made a dent in BJP’s strongholds in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh.
As such, the Congress will probably see support erode in the national election in 2014. The formation of a viable non-Congress collective — an alternative front — is now feasible. There is political space for it. This front can take two forms.
First, it can be trigged by the broadening of the BJP-led NDA. Second, it can have the CPI(M) incubate a third front.
The second looks difficult. The Communists are out of power in both Thiruvananthapuram and, more important, Kolkata. They will spend the next two or three years regrouping, sorting out internal issues and deciding what sort of a party they want to be. That leaves the NDA option.
Here, reality has sobered the BJP. While it is holding on to its old fortresses, it’s not expanding. The party had hoped for big success in Assam and fancied that between the AGP and it, they could stop the Congress.
This proved a non-starter. The BJP will have to court new allies not by virtue of being a growing force in electoral politics — as it was in the late 1990s — but by promising to be a very understanding coalition partner in the manner it has demonstrated with Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
It is logical that Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, N Chandrababu Naidu and, separately, Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu will control crucial seats in the next (post-2014) Lok Sabha.
With Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, these regional satraps could conceivably have 100-120 seats among them. If the Congress falters, they will be ready to do business with an alternative, but on their own terms. If the BJP wants to be that alternative, it will have to accept those terms.
For a start it needs to give its NDA partners a say in the choice of face of the next election campaign. The BJP is in no position to pretend it can be an in-house decision, not after Assam.
(Ashok Malik is Delhi-based political commentator.The views expressed by the author are personal)