Is Congress the Biggest Hurdle in Opposition Efforts to Defeat the BJP?
A statewise analysis
For the first time since Independence a non-Congress government has come back to power with a full majority. And it’s the Congress which created the stage for the BJP to perform its best. Rajiv Gandhi had the gates of the Babri Masjid monument unlocked, promising Ram Rajya from Ayodhya on the eve of the 1989 elections, and allowed the bricklaying ceremony for a Ram Temple in total violation of court orders. He also played to conservative Muslim clerics by overruling a Supreme Court verdict in favour of Shah Bano’s right to maintenance after divorce.
Today, it is Rahul Gandhi who played spoiler to the opposition parties in Assam, Bihar, Delhi, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, seemingly without any analysis of how the Congress’s arrogance would only help in the victory of Narendra Modi. Let us look, state by state, at how the Congress under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership undercut the possibility of a united opposition fight.
Assam: In March AIUDF supremo Barduddin Ajmal said his party wasn’t going to contest more than three seats in the Lok Sabha polls. The decision was aimed at stopping the BJP from taking advantage of a division of “secular votes.” As in the 2016 Assembly polls, Ajmal urged the Congress to come to an understanding while burying old differences. But former Assam CM and Congress leader Tarun Gogoi said the AIUDF’s decision to contesting only three seats reflected its weakness. And sure enough the Congress contested all 14 seats, winning just three and denting the AIUDF’s fortunes in Barpeta and Karimganj. If the Congress had focused on winning Silchar, Autonomous District, Guwahati, Mangaldoi, Kaliabor, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur and Tezpur, while the AIUDF concentrated on Karimganj, Dhubri, Barpeta, Nowgong and Kokrajhar, then the NDA would have faced a greater erosion of votes in previously won Lok Sabha seats.
Seats dented: 7-8
Bihar: The BJP-JDU-LJP combine’s sweep in Bihar can be attributed to a number of factors, the key one being the perfect synergy among the NDA allies. In contrast, the Grand Alliance comprising the RJD, Congress, HAM, RLSP and VIP appeared to be muddled to the extent that some of their seats were allocated just five days prior to the elections. The Congress demanded 12 seats and was accommodated in 9, whereas the last time Congress won more than 5 seats was in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The RLSP, HAM and VIP were happy with the number of seats given to them, but Congress leaders targeted the RJD which eventually sent the wrong message to workers and damaged their image. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav - his father Lalu Yadav was jailed during the campaign - was compelled to call out Congress arrogance on Twitter.
Secondly, the caste combination with leaders like Upendra Kushwaha, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahni looked good as a blueprint but the decision to allot 8 seats to their parties did not go down well with RJD supporters. It was thought that the RLSP, HAM and VIP being former NDA allies would jump ship if needed.
If the CPI and CPI(ML), which have a significant presence in pockets of Bihar, had been accommodated instead of these parties then the alliance could have performed better. The CPI(ML) has 3 MLAs and in Bihar, it was a bigger party than the LJP, RLSP or HAM. The CPI(ML) and CPI had a combined vote share of around 3% in the state, and importantly these votes are concentrated in certain belts: Arrah, Siwan, Katihar for the CPI(ML) and the Begusarai-Mithila region for the CPI.
The RJD’s gamble on 17 seats (INC, RLSP, HAM, VIP) didn’t go down well with voters and throughout the campaign, the cadres felt the absence of Lalu Prasad Yadav on the seats contested by the RJD.
Seats dented: 17+
Jharkhand: The Grand Alliance of the Congress, JMM, JVMP and RJD failed to boost the morale of a large section of people in the state who were looking for a credible challenger to the NDA government. The last time Congress won a seat in Jharkhand was in 2009 when Subodh Kant Sahay defeated Ram Tahal Chaudhary of the BJP. The Congress drew a blank in 2014 and secured a little over 10% of the vote in the 2014 assembly elections, yet it was allotted 7 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in the alliance’s arrangement. The main opposition party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha securing over 20% votes in the Assembly elections, was allotted only 4 seats.
The Congress was the mainstay of the opposition alliance in non-tribal segments, but it was not organisationally prepared to meet the challenge. It lost in four of the seven constituencies it contested (Chhatra, Dhanbad, Hazaribagh and Ranchi) with margins exceeding 2.8 lakh votes. So the alliance in Jharkhand did not work on the ground in terms of transfer of votes, or in cutting through the faultlines of mutual competition among cadres for same electoral segments, especially Adivasis.
The Godda constituency had considerable Muslim votes and one of the contenders from the Congress was Furkhan Ansari, who won the seat in 2004. He could have given a tough fight to the BJP’s Nishikant Dubey but was denied the seat to accommodate the JVMP. The fortunes of the JMM and JVMP, and their influence in Adivasi segments, did not the guarantee a consolidation of opposition votes when a larger chunk of seats had been allotted to a party with no mass support.
Seats dented: 10+
Maharashtra: After Prakash Ambedkar joined hands with AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi to form the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi ahead of the elections, the VBA was in talks with Congress-NCP to form an alliance. Ambedkar and other members met former CM and Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan, but no concrete proposals emerged for a tie-up. The VBA was reportedly keen on an alliance with the Congress. Ambedkar reiterated that there wouldn’t be any alliance with the Congress unless it gave a written proposal on bringing the RSS under the constitutional framework.
Although the Congress said that the VBA’s unrealistic demand for 23 seats was the reason for a failure in stitching up an alliance, the party also reportedly felt that associating with a front that includes Owaisi could upset Hindu voters, and the emergence of the VBA in an attempt to consolidate Muslim and Dalit votes would harm the prospects of the Congress and the NCP in the long run.
The Congress dented the VBA’s prospects in Akola and Sangli constituencies where it was emerging as a winner. In the end the Congress secured just a single seat while the NCP won 4. Had the Congress entered into an alliance with the VBA it would have won the Buldhana, Gadhchiroli-Chimur, Hingoli, Nanded, Parbhani and Yavatmal-Washim seats. The 14% vote share for the VBA shows that voters have now started believing in an alternative to the Congress-NCP and BJP-Sena.
Seats dented: 10
Uttar Pradesh: The results in Uttar Pradesh imply that the Mahagathbandan comprising the SP, BSP and RLD offered more seats to the Congress than it deserved, as it managed to win just Rae Bareilly. It was unethical on the Congress’s part to contest from more than 70 seats. If it wasn’t strong enough to defeat the BJP then it should have extended its support to a party which had the capacity to take on the BJP. They should have put up a friendly fight in Saharanpur, Ghaziabad, Lucknow, Kanpur, Barabanki and Kushinagar where they were runners up in 2014, and should have supported the Mahagathbandhan in 72 seats. This would have gone down well and would have increased the prestige of the Congress among voters as well as opposition parties. However, the arrogance of the Congress harmed the SP’s prospects in Badaun, Banda, Barabanki, Bareilly, Chandauli, Faizabad, Kairana, Mirzapur, and Robertsganj. The BSP on the other hand suffered setbacks in Aonla, Basti, Bijnor, Bhadohi, Dhauraha, Domariyaganj, Machhlishahr, Meerut, Mohanlalganj, Pratapgarh, Sant Kabir Nagar, Sitapur and Sultanpur.
Seats dented: 20-23
West Bengal: The BJP’s vote share here in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was 17.2%. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the Left Democratic and Secular Alliance comprising the CPI(M), CPI, RSP, AIFB and the Congress emerged as an alternative to Mamata Banerjee by securing almost 38% votes and bringing the BJP down to 10%. Although this did not translate into very many seats, it did indicate that voters were showing trust in someone besides Banerjee and Modi.
The Congress vote in the state was concentrated in a few districts, while Left voters were spread across the state. In these pockets, as the CPI(M) transferred votes the Congress became even stronger, emerging victorious with a margin of more than 30,000 votes in Kaliaganj, Ratua, Manickchak, Maldaha, Mothabari, Sujapur, Raninagar, Khargram, Beldanga and Durgapur Pashchim, and more than 50,000 votes in Raiganj, Chanchal, Lalgola and Baharampur. The party won 44 seats but 22 were only from the Murshidabad and Maldaha districts. So the Congress was either unable to transfer its vote or simply had too few votes to make a difference. In fact, the highest victory margin of the CPI(M) was in Nabagram constituency with 38,066 votes.
After the reduction of seats in Left’s tally the CPI(M) decided not to continue in the alliance, but it made another attempt at damage control in the 2019 Lok Sabha election by extending an offer of seatshare arrangement with the Congress on condition of no mutual contest on existing parliamentary seats.
In Baharampur, Jangipur, Malda Dakshin, Malda Uttar, Murshidabad and Raiganj the combined vote share of the Left and Congress was more than that of the TMC, as well as the BJP, in both the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 Assembly elections. In Alipurduars, Birbhum, Jalpaiguri, Krishnagar and Purulia, the combined vote share of the Left and Congress was more than the TMC and BJP in the Lok Sabha polls but not the Assembly polls. Finally, in Bardhaman Purba, Cooch Behar and Diamond Harbour the combined vote share of the Left and Congress was behind the TMC in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, but by an extremely narrow margin.
Maximising votes against the BJP was the need of the hour but the Bengal unit of the Congress claimed that an alliance with either the CPI(M) or the Trinamool Congress would not serve the “long term” interests of the party. The Bengal Congress chief Somen Mitra went to the extent of saying that “We may not win many seats but our party will continue to exist in Bengal in the future.”
If the understanding between the Left and Congress had not been broken in 2016, and had instead been converted into a stable state-level political alliance, accompanied by constant booth-level coordination, and nurtured at the grassroots for the last three years, then the 2019 results would probably have resisted the rise of BJP and the rout of both the Congress and the Left.
Seats dented: 12-16
In Karnataka the Congress and the JD(S) squabbled over seats, damaging both sides and helping the BJP’s propaganda about the inability of Congress allies to form a stable government. The JD(S) wanted to contest 12 of the 28 seats, but the Congress was not ready to concede more than 6.
Even in Manipur and Tripura the Congress could have won 2 out of 4 seats if it had allied with the Left parties.
The Congress also damaged the prospects of the TRS and BJD in Telangana’s Karimnagar, Nizamabad and Secunderabad, and Odisha’s Balasore, Bargarh, Bolangir and Sambalpur respectively.
Most people had come to the conclusion, even prior to the general election, that the Congress would not be able to defeat the BJP, and the landslide victory of Narendra Modi came as no surprise.
The NYAY scheme came too late and did not percolate to the masses, even in the states where the Congress held power.
The biggest setback for me as a political observer was to see the Congress celebrate taking on and fighting the communists in Kerala when its job was to fight the fascists.
The Congress dented around 90 opposition seats. The party seems to be in disarray, with no clarity on alliances days before the elections, and no organisational preparedness to take on the BJP’s well-oiled election machine.