The job has only half begun
The biggest surprise of this election perhaps came from UP, where the Congress won 21 seats — its best in 25 years. The impressive showing may have vindicated Rahul Gandhi’s style of politics, but for him the job of reviving the Congress has only half begun.
The jump in the Congress’ seat tally — from 145 in 2004 to 206 in 2009 — somewhat conceals the challenge that the party faces in regaining its past glory. The Congress’ share in total votes rose only 2 per cent to 28.6 per cent, which is not very different from the average 27.6 per cent votes that the party polled in the past five elections since 1996. Elections in 1996, after which coalition governments in New Delhi came to be seen as an irreversible reality, saw the vote share of the Congress dip below 30 per cent for the first time. So, what explains the 40 per cent jump in the number of seats that the party won this time? Breaking up the numbers state-wise offers some explanation as also some prescriptive insights for Rahul Gandhi and his team.
The major gains for the Congress came from Rajasthan (16 seats, 5.8 per cent vote swing), Kerala (13 seats, 8 per cent swing), UP (12 seats, 6 per cent swing), Madhya Pradesh (8 seats, 6 per cent swing) and Punjab (6 seats, 11 per cent swing). Barring UP, most of these gains can be attributed to anti-incumbency and, therefore, run the risk of getting reversed in the next elections. But the real worry lies in the numbers for Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress saw a significant drop in its vote share: 7.6 per cent, 4.2 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively.
Still, the party managed to win four more seats than it did in 2004 in each of these states, because the Opposition was split. In Orissa, the BJD’s decision to snap its alliance with the BJP helped, while Chiranjeevi snatched enough votes from the TDP to give the Congress a sweep in AP and Raj Thackeray played spoiler for the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. If the third candidate goes missing in the next election, the Congress will falter in these states unless it works hard to win back the voters. The big concern is Orissa, which is drifting towards the BJP much in the manner Karnataka and Gujarat have done over the last decade. The BJP may not have won any of the 21 LS seats in the state this time, but it is making inroads into the tribal-dominated non-coastal districts that were once Congress strongholds. After these elections, the BJP will be more visible than the Congress as an Opposition to the BJD.
There is perhaps no other state, where the Congress has got it so wrong in choosing its local leadership. Its leaders in Orissa are inaccessible, enjoy limited mass support and lack any enterprise to take on Patnaik’s one-man show in the state. Former Union Minister KP Singhdeo, who hails from a royal family and was appointed president of the Congress in Orissa months before the elections, prefers to be addressed as Raja Saheb and spends more time in Delhi than among the people of the state.
Just as Orissa could go either way, Karnataka and Bihar are two other big states (28 and 40 LS seats respectively) where the Congress can make big changes with little effort. In Karnataka, the influence of the third force — Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (S) — is waning, but the BJP has been able to gain more from that than the Congress, which is why the latter saw its seat tally go down despite a marginal increase in vote share. Local leadership is again an issue in this southern state, where until a decade ago voters mostly swung between the Congress and a centrist alternative like the Janata Dal.
Coming to Bihar, the Congress saw its vote share touch double digits for the first time in a decade — it more than doubled to 10.9 per cent in this election from 4.5 per cent in 2004. Rahul Gandhi would do well to aim for a repeat of UP in Bihar. Then there are some states, where the Congress is steadily scoring more votes than before and those gains must be consolidated. For instance, Uttarakhand’s largely bipolar polity has seen voters increasingly switch to the Congress in the last four elections. In Tamil Nadu, the gains have been small but steady over the past decade; so also in Haryana and Delhi. In short, Rahul has his task cut out for him. He must overhaul the party in Orissa and Karnataka, seize the opportunity in Bihar, tighten the loose ends in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and build on the gains in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.