Rama Shankar Sharma, a middle-aged Brahmin in a village near Allahabad, had some astrological predictions on the future of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. "The next assembly will not last long and the next election will be fought among three women — Uma Bharti (BJP), Mayawati (BSP) and Rita Bahuguna Joshi of the Congress. Nobody will be a clear winner then either," he says. But in the election after that, all in the next five years, said Sharma, the Congress will be victorious.
Though they wear their allegiance to the Congress on their sleeves, Sharma and his Brahmin brethren have voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP). "BSP has cheated us. Only the SP can beat the BSP," he reasoned. Bansidhar Yadav, standing next to him, has another reason: "Had Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi been declared chief ministerial candidate, the Congress would have won." Each one of that gathering of five — including the Yadav whose natural choice is not the Congress but has noted the enhanced representation of backwards in the party — wishes that the party returns in UP, but not a single one has voted for it.
The original rainbow party that used to be a coalition of all castes and communities, the Congress today does not have any social group which it can count as its own — as Jatavs for the BSP or Yadavs for the SP — and which is often described as 'base vote.' Though each individual group vouches an emotional loyalty to the party, they all face what social scientists call 'prisoner's dilemma' — when each actor in a group situation tries to guess others' behaviour and behaves accordingly. As each group fears a negative fallout in pursuing its admittedly supreme self-interest — the return of the Congress — he settles for the second or third option.
These are some of the scenarios that emerged from the teashop conversation:
First, the Brahmin wants to vote for the Congress, but fears that the Muslim may vote for the SP and Dalits for the BSP. So he votes for his second (BJP) or, even third preference, the SP.
Second, the Muslim may want to vote for the Congress, but he fears that the upper caste may vote for the BJP. His primary objective is to defeat the BJP and, therefore, could vote for the SP, his second preference.
Third, many non-Yadav backwards may also want to vote for the Congress but he is not sure of whether Muslims or the upper caste would vote along. He would settle for his second choice — the SP or the BSP as the case may be.
Fourth, the Dalit who wants the Congress may fear that the upper caste would vote for the BJP while Muslims vote for the SP. Therefore, he could consider his second preference, the BSP.
If all of those who say they want a Congress victory indeed vote for the party, it will easily win. But as the 'prisoner's dilemma' plays out, a large number of people would settle for their second preference, trying to guess how others may be voting. It is at this moment of reckoning, that the inherent weakness of the party, namely, a lack of organisation and absence of a core 'base vote' work against the Congress. Congress's ability to be a rainbow coalition has also been weakened by the decision to carve out a minority quota within the OBC quota, offending the Hindu backwards.
However, if the same group confronts the same dilemma repeatedly, they move closer to the optimal equilibrium, in this instance, a Congress victory. The Congress returned to UP politics in 2004 as nostalgia; in 2007, it became a hope in the figure of Rahul Gandhi; and in 2009 it became the first option to rule at the Centre. Since it was a surge of sectarian politics that decimated the Congress in UP, it can grow only with a corresponding decline in sectarianism. Studies of the party's electoral performance have shown that it gained in 2009 from all communities, but more specifically from Brahmins, non-Yadav peasant OBCs and upper class Muslims.
The question, therefore, is whether a threshold quantum of people would overcome the 'prisoner's dilemma' to move the party closer to government in the state? It is here that the increase in voting percentage holds out the highest hope for the party — assuming that fresh voters are less likely to be prisoners of identity politics.