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Fewer contests, more allies can help Congress tackle BJP in 2019

An analysis of election statistics from 1996 onwards shows that the Congress’s failure to strike political alliances has been to the BJP’s advantage

india Updated: Jan 02, 2018 09:00 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Rahul Gandhi,Congress,Narendra Modi
For Congress president Rahul Gandhi, one of the biggest successes in the recently held Gujarat assembly elections was to bring together various anti-BJP forces.(PTI File Photo)

One of the biggest successes of Rahul Gandhi in the recently held Gujarat polls was to unite various anti-BJP forces.

Few would disagree that aligning with Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani — the trio decided to join or support the Congress just in time for the elections — was a good idea.

The Bharatiya Tribal Party has got another two seats for the Congress alliance. Had the Congress not ensured opposition unity, it could have fared much worse, given the fact that the BJP actually increased its vote share in comparison to 2012 assembly elections. Rural distress or not, the Congress’ biggest success in Gujarat was in ensuring that its vote share gains actually translated into an increase in the number of seats it won in the assembly.

This experience holds important lessons for Congress strategists. If the Congress can create a rainbow coalition against the BJP — which is now the dominant force in Indian politics — a turnaround is not impossible.

In fact, an analysis of election statistics from 1996 onwards shows that the Congress’s failure to strike political alliances has been to the BJP’s advantage; 1996 was the first time the BJP became the single largest party in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress has contested more Lok Sabha seats than the BJP in all elections since 1996. A look at strike rates — seats won as percentage of seats contested — of the Congress and BJP shows that this is poor strategy on part of the former. Except 2009, the BJP has always had a higher strike rate than the Congress (See Chart 1).

The more seats these two major national parties contest, the lower their ability to strike alliances with other parties.

The Congress’s electoral performance does not justify its eagerness to contest more seats than the BJP. Except 1996 and 2009, the Congress has always lost its deposit on a greater share of contested seats than the BJP (See Chart 2). This means that the Congress contests a lot of seats where it is not even really in the contest.

Another statistic shows that the BJP is a big beneficiary of the Congress’s habit of contesting potentially non-winnable seats. An analysis of all Lok Sabha seats where both the Congress and BJP put up a candidate shows that the BJP has always won a greater share of these seats than the Congress, except in 2009 (See Chart 3).

The Congress can learn from this; there are some easy gains it can make. In Uttar Pradesh, the average number of seats where the party has lost its deposits between 1996 and 2014 is 55. The figure was 72 in 2014 elections. There is no reason why the party should not think about an alliance in the next elections, even if it entails giving up majority of seats.

In Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh (undivided) the Congress lost its deposits on 38, 35 and 27 seats in the 2014 Parliamentary elections. The DMK, YSR Congress and Trinamool Congress were either UPA’s constituents or part of the Congress party itself. But there was no electoral alliance. A prudent leadership would have preserved these alliances in the face of the stiff challenge from the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi himself has admitted that the Congress became arrogant midway during the UPA II regime. Now that he is the party president, can the Congress come to terms with the reality that its claim of being India’s biggest political party — which reflects in its contesting the largest number of seats — does not hold anymore?

This realisation could make the Congress more flexible in offering seats to strike electoral alliances. This could have a significant outcome on seat shares. In 2017, a Mint analysis showed that parties have failed to get to the majority mark with vote shares which are greater than what the BJP had in 2014 general elections. It also highlighted the fact that non-Congress non-BJP parties have consistently maintained a vote share of almost 50% during general elections. This shows that smart alliances are crucial for getting past the halfway mark in Lok Sabha.

Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s leadership, the BJP’s stated goal is to create a Congress-Mukt Bharat (or an India free of the Congress). A controlled strategy that sees the party contest fewer seats and partner with more allies could actually help Rahul Gandhi deal with this challenge.

(Samarth Bansal contributed to the data analysis).

First Published: Jan 02, 2018 09:00 IST