The Congress’ poor showing in the Bihar state elections, and its role in dragging the Maha Gathbandhan (MGB) down necessitates a deeper analysis. The poor strike rate of the Congress, despite bargaining hard and wresting 70 seats in the alliance, brings to focus how the grand old party throws its weight around without bringing much to the table.
In many ways this result in Bihar is a repetition of what happened in Tamil Nadu in 2016, when the Congress weighed the alliance down. However, unlike Uttar Pradesh in 2017 or Tamil Nadu in 2016, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) would have won nevertheless, the Congress has emerged as the singular cause of the MGB’s loss in Bihar.
If one were to take into account the by-poll results from across India coinciding with the Bihar elections, where the BJP wrested 31 of the 59 seats from the Congress, the situation turns grimmer for India’s grand old party. In fact, the by-poll result in Telangana, where the BJP sprung a surprise by defeating the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), on the back of a good showing in the general election, could be a pointer on how the BJP might edge ahead of the Congress as the primary opposition in the state.
It has been always the case that the Congress gets decimated once it loses its status as the ruling party or primary opposition in any state. From Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in the 1960s and ’70s, and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the early ’90s, the Congress has been reduced to a party with a single digit vote share in these states. Such a fate might soon befall the party in Odisha and even in Maharashtra and Telangana, if nothing is done to reverse the party’s slide there. In Andhra Pradesh, however, the Congress has been reduced to a cipher, with leaders and organisation switching en masse to the YSR Congress.
How The Congress Got Here
Apart from major organisational issues, the party has lost its support base among major caste groups in state after state. Moreover, the party never managed to appeal to the growing middle class in the post-liberalisation era or to the youth or women, which would have offset this loss of caste base.
Take Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress had built an unlikely coalition of upper castes Brahmins and Rajputs along with Dalits and Muslims, before the Mandal-Kamandal wave ensured that the upper castes switched over to the BJP and the Dalits and the Muslims to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) respectively. If the BJP was just the “party of Banias”, as Indira Gandhi used to routinely mock the Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, it managed to pretty much wrest the entire upper caste base of the Congress in the Hindi heartland post the ’90s.
In states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress did manage to make a comeback after 15 years, it was facilitated more by the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, and, also due to the fatigue and yearning for change among the voters, apart from maintaining its position as the primary opposition. The party is still in contention in Gujarat, where it remains the only alternative.
The Owaisi Factor
In states where the Congress has been decimated, literally speaking, with 10 percent votes or less, the residual votes of the party mostly come from Muslims, who now have a new courter in the Hyderabad based-All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Asaduddin Owaisi. While Owaisi was initially written off as a Shia leader incapable of appealing to the majority Sunnis in mainland India, he has now managed to make inroads into the Muslim base that makes up the Congress support base.
Even in Maharashtra, where the Congress was the big brother to the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) until recently, the AIMIM has managed to make deep inroads — primarily at the expense of the Congress. There is a larger danger for the Congress here if Owaisi manages to tie up with parties such as the BSP in the Hindi heartland, and opens up a Dalit-Muslim front.
What Lies Ahead
In Assam, which goes to polls in six months — along with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, West Bengal early next year – the Congress is readying to contest in alliance with the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to try and avert splitting of votes. If the Congress can ally with the AIDUF, it is well possible that the Congress could co-opt the AIMIM in future.
In West Bengal, the Left and Congress would contest together in an alliance whereas in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) would be apprehensive of the Congress’ potential to play spoiler both within and outside the alliance, and would, in all probability, tie up with fewer seats allotted to Congress. Come Uttar Pradesh early next year, the home state of the Gandhis, Owaisi will be back in the reckoning. The Congress will have a lot of time to do soul-searching until then. Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.