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Congress becomes opposition’s favourite poaching ground

It is not the electoral debacles of the Congress alone that have made political competitors sense an opportunity, it is the perceived reluctance of the party to reinvigorate, and resuscitate itself

November 29, 2021 / 12:00 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image

Politics is rarely linear. It is an unpredictable slippery topography that often leads to a black hole. The script usually goes awry just when you think you are cruising along, focusing on visible targets, and known enemies. Suddenly a new dangerous threat emerges, and before you say ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’, the citadel experiences some seismic shocks.

India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress is in the throes of one such apocalyptic crisis. This time it is not that familiar foe, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is furiously trying to smother it down; it is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) from West Bengal. Expect fireworks to play out.

It is not the electoral debacles of the Congress alone that have made political competitors sense an opportunity, it is the perceived reluctance of the party to reinvigorate, and resuscitate itself. Now that is an old hackneyed tale that I am sure you have heard of more than you have seen a Cred advertisement.

The truth is that electoral politics is a zero-sum game; you gain at the expense of someone’s loss, and vice versa. With the BJP beginning to face some serious reverses evident in the by-election results, regional opposition parties foresee a political cleavage. Timing becomes everything. The Congress’ lackadaisical attitude towards organisational reforms, and more importantly, its bizarre indecision on its organisational leadership (postponed to September 2022), is hurting its narrative-setting. It is an act of kamikaze. Enter the TMC.

TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is often described in a collective chorus as “a gutsy street fighter”. Even her worst critics will have to applaud the fiery spiritedness of her election campaign in West Bengal. Her plastered leg, hurt during a scuffle, was converted ingeniously into a headline. As sympathy poured in, a boorish BJP, foolishly arrogant, aggravated their own floundering chances by ridiculing her accident as a cheap artifice. So did the sulking Congress. They were both routed.


She now appears bored of being cocooned in India’s eastern corners, even if she is an unchallenged czarina of that territory that contributes a significant 42 seats in the Lok Sabha kitty. If Narendra Modi from a smaller state of Gujarat could make it to 7, Race Course Road (rechristened Lok Kalyan Marg), then why not Didi?

Seriously, why not? After all, like him she is in her third successive term as Chief Minister. Like him, she is ambitious. Like him, she is a formidable force, and dominates her party. Like Modi, she has her own distinctive political brand.

But that is where the similarity ends. Modi heads a national party with an overwhelming majority, with a solid footprint in high-stakes states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and most northern states. The TMC is still a one-trick pony from Bhadralok & Co. That’s what Banerjee is trying to transmogrify. That’s where election strategist Prashant Kishor comes in.

Honestly, one doesn’t have to be a statistical panjandrum to see the lopsided math in the BJP versus the Congress combat. In the near head-to-head contests between them in about 200 seats, the BJP has consecutively achieved a disproportionate booty of 90 percent. That is absurdly asymmetrical.

In a Lok Sabha of 543 seats, it is therefore nearly impossible for the hodgepodge of other opposition parties to win about 250 seats of the remaining 343. Banerjee-Kishor’s game-plan is actually a no-brainer: enter the Congress turf, and gradually, and where possible immediately (like in Goa) appropriate Congress assets.

The TMC, of course, does some moral grandstanding too: “After all, we are ideologically like the mothership anyway, right”? Especially on that touchy subject called secularism? Since most disgruntled Congressmen find it excruciatingly painful to join the BJP (no matter the allurements), and find AAP duplicitous, the TMC becomes a convenient fall back. Kishor’s strategy is thus to usurp Congressmen in all smalls states, and those in bipolar contestations. Voters like a winnable proposition; if the TMC exudes exuberance as a new Congress 2.0 alternative, then maybe the BJP’s lead in the 200 seats can be minimised.

It could be a double whammy, also catapulting Banerjee to the hot-seat in Delhi. Those who laugh it off underestimate the Banerjee-Kishor electoral calculus, which is that the TMC can get more Lok Sabha seats than Congress in 2024. Through a dubious modus operandi it has hijacked Meghalaya from the Congress. It also helps to have Sushmita Dev, L Faleiro, Kirti Azad, Pawan Verma, and Ashok Tanwar join the TMC bandwagon.

But the TMC faces a challenging conundrum: Will people see it beyond being just a Bangla party? Will Mamata Banerjee have a pan-India acceptance in states that don’t necessarily like fish curry in mustard sauce?

All this is under the tenuous assumption that the Congress continues to sleep at the wheel despite hitting speed-breakers. As the by-election results in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka show, the Congress has a natural minimum threshold of vote share. If it can rise above the archaic red-tape embroiled style of running the party with useless committees and infantile Twitter hashtag trends, it can still be a force to reckon with. Don’t write it off yet.

The BJP has clobbered it, and now the TMC is thrashing it further. But the Congress is still the party that is the original torchbearer of the Idea of India. Politics is notoriously fickle. Trust me, there is a lot of water yet to flow under the bridge.
Sanjay Jha is former National Spokesperson of the Congress, and author of The Great Unravelling: India After 2014. Twitter: @JhaSanjay. Views are personal.
first published: Nov 29, 2021 12:00 pm

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