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Sutanu Guru analyses the turmoil within the congress-led upa after the recent election setbacks
TSI | Issue Dated: April 22, 2007
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ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? You can feel the onset and onslaught of summer in the simmering heat as driblets of sweat cling to your eyebrows and nose tip. As lusty, rustic and loud voices swirl around with the dust, it is not difficult to imagine how Charan Singh destroyed the formidable Congress vote bank in western Uttar Pradesh about 40 years ago. Charan Singh’s son, Ajit Singh, is desperately clinging on to his father’s now-tattered legacy, striving mighty hard to ensure that he somehow remains a gadfly you can’t ignore in the cesspool that is Uttar Pradesh politics.

Even before Ajit Singh wraps up his uninspiring speech near a village called Sisauli, there is a virtual stampede as the staccato beats of helicopter rotors hover above the rally. Word spreads that Rahul Gandhi is landing and people swarm towards the landing pad. You get a feeling that Ajit Singh might well become history in these elections as the smiling and now more confident Rahul basks in the glow of charisma and pedigree. Even old, cynical scribes are compelled to indulge in a bit of nostalgia and draw up similarities between now and the early 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi had captured the imagination of India. But appearances are almost always deceptive. The rapturous crowds flocking to the Rahul Gandhi road shows are a clear indication that the charisma and aura of the Gandhi family is very much intact. But it is a different, and far more sober 24 Akbar Road, that houses the headquarters of India’s oldest political party. Out here, there is neither exhilaration, nor a sense of history in the making. Voters in Delhi have delivered a humiliating blow to the Congress in the municipal elections, with the BJP storming to power after a long hiatus.

Not too long ago, voters in Mumbai, Punjab and Uttarakhand had heaped similar humiliation on the Congress. The same urban voters who had played a big role in catapulting the Congress to power during the General Elections of 2004 now seem seething with anger. Pundits are already pontificating that inflation and the growing angst of the aam aadmi will ensure that Sonia Gandhi will have to do another stint as Opposition leader after the next round of elections to the Lok Sabha. Leaders of the BJP now crow jubilantly that the NDA is all set to come back to power. You even have politicians turning algebra specialists and calculating how a Third Front government at the Centre may be a distinct possibility. ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? But then, that is typical media hype and shallow punditry of the type that had claimed in early 2004 that the BJP and NDA will have a cakewalk and claimed in 2006 that the BJP was dying. Now that the Congress has lost a couple of elections, the same pundits seem to have discovered a new branch of analysis and are now claiming that the Congress is dying, and that the General Elections due in 2009 will see the BJP and NDA come back to power with a vengeance. Sure, things look pretty bad for the Congress and the UPA at the moment. The NDA is ruling in more States than the Congress. Yet, as recent elections have repeatedly shown, who wins now depends upon two crucial factors – incumbency and alliances. And, despite scholarly garbage about mandates, the Indian voter seems determined to baffle the pundits.

A brief look at the results of the 2004 elections will dispel all false notions about ‘mandates’; and clearly reinforce the common sense wisdom that ‘local’ factors now play a bigger role in deciding ‘anti-incumbency’. In Haryana, the Congress (UPA) had won not a single seat in the 1999 elections. By 2004, an erstwhile NDA partner Om Prakash Chautala had become so unpopular that the Congress won nine seats during the 2004 elections. Of course, the Congress also came back to power in the State. In Delhi too, the Congress tally went up from zero in 1999 to six in 2004. In Gujarat, despite the Hindutva strongman Narendra Modi’s best efforts, the Congress went up from six to 12 seats in 2004 while the BJP declined from 20 to 14. This was ascribed to voter anger at the ‘India Shining’ arrogance of the BJP and the NDA. In fact, thousands of articles, essays and analyses have been written about how the ‘India Shining’ arrogance of the BJP cost it the elections in 2004.

If that were so, how does one explain the following results? In Rajasthan, the Congress tally went down from nine to four while the NDA tally went up from 16 to 21. In Chhattisgarh (a new State created in 2000 with Uttarakhand and Jharkhand), the Congress was virtually wiped out even as the BJP won 10 out of 11 seats. In Karnataka, the Congress crashed from 18 seats in 1999 to 8 seats in 2004 while the NDA jumped from 10 in 1999 to 20 in 2004. A look at who was ruling these States prior to the 2004 elections will explain the verdict. Just before the 2004 polls, the Congress had been defeated badly in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and turfed out of power. Something similar happened in Karnataka. ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? Lesson number one: If you want to understand what might happen in the elections due in 2009, please check out local incumbency. Anti-incumbency at the local level does play a crucial role in deciding electoral fortunes. But there is another factor that can either reinforce, or even override anti-incumbency during elections. And that is the ability of a party to forge alliances that decisively tilt the balance. Take Andhra Pradesh in 2004. The Telugu Desam led by Chandrababu Naidu was completing a second term and anti-incumbency was working strongly against the Telugu Desam-BJP alliance. While the NDA partners went their own ways by breaking the alliance, the Congress forged one with the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti. The result, the UPA tally of Lok Sabha seats in Andhra went up from six in 1999 to 34 in 2004. Something similar happened in Tamil Nadu where the Congress had won just two seats in 1999. Sonia Gandhi scripted a masterstroke by allying with the DMK and smaller parties like MDMK and PMK who were erstwhile members of the NDA. The result: the UPA won 26 seats in the State while the NDA tally went down from 39 to zero!

In Maharashtra, an opportunistic alliance between the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar and smaller Dalit parties ensured that the UPA tally in the State increased from 16 in 1999 to 23 in 2004. The alliance also retained power in the State, despite a deeply unpopular government. In Bihar, Sonia Gandhi roped in the RJD of Lalu Prasad Yadav and the LJP of erstwhile NDA partner Ram Vilas Paswan as allies. And what happened? The UPA tally went up from 11 in 1999 to 29 in 2004. If you look at Jharkhand, the UPA tally went up from 11 to 42 and that of NDA crashed from 41 seats to just 12! Even the NDA benefited from alliances in 2004. In Orissa, despite anti-incumbency, the alliance between the BJP and the BJD led by Naveen Patnaik defeated the Congress in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

Lesson number two: Alliances can decisively tilt the scales in your favour. So what can one say about the General Elections due in 2009? There is a sense of déjà vu and a striking similarity between what happened to the NDA before 2004 and what is happening to the UPA before 2009. Thanks primarily due to the barbaric massacre of Muslims in Gujarat (and political opportunism), the DMK, Paswan, Telugu Desam and the National Conference (Farooq Abdullah) amongst others had ditched the NDA before the 2004 elections. The BJP paid a heavy price for it. Would something similar begun to happen with the UPA? The Telangana Rashtriya Samiti and the MDMK have quit the UPA. The Samajwadi Party has withdrawn its ‘outside’ support. Would other ‘allies’ start jumping ship if the tide starts turning decisively against the Congress?

More so, will the ‘incumbency’ factor hold any promise for the Congress? While it will help the party and the UPA make big gains in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka, the factor could certainly work against Congress and the UPA in other major States. There are still about two years to go for Sonia Gandhi to work out a strategy to beat the odds that confront the Congress right now. But for the moment, does it look as if the bells are tolling? ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? THIRD FRONT: REALITY OR CHIMERA?

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav is desperately trying to forge a Third Front for Parliament elections due in Spring 2009. He has garnered the support of TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, AIADMK President Jayalalithaa, INLD supremo Om Prakash Chautala, George Fernandes and Left Front leaders. Next on the SP’s radar are parties like NCP, LJSP and AGP. “We will be in a position to form our own government in next elections as both the Congress and the BJP are on the decline”, Yadav told TSI. The fact however, is that Third Front aspirants along with the Left Front wouldn’t be able to cross the 200-seat mark in the 543-member Parliament. Hence, they wouldn’t be able to form a government without the support of the Congress. But, all governments supported by the Congress have lacked stability. No prizes for guessing the fate of the next Third Front government. ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? LONG WAY FOR THE PRINCE IN A CHOPPER

The Congress might be safely ensconced at the Centre but it knows that it needs to strengthen its position in Uttar Pradesh to remain safe at the national level. That is why the party is expecting miracles out of Rahul Gandhi’s road shows in UP. After years of coaxing and cajoling, Rahul made his political debut in May 2004 from Amethi vowing to do something for the country and his main focus initially was on Amethi. First task done, he has now taken charge of his party in the UP elections. Rahul, no doubt, is trying hard to revive the beleaguered party in UP. He has been making carefully prepared statements in his well attended road shows to regain lost Congress ground. And going by the crowd response, he appears to be making the mark but is still far from transforming the party’s electoral fortunes. After three road shows and uncountable speeches, the Congress’s Yuvraj clearly realises that only words are not enough; and he has the competence to put in a lot more sustained effort to convince people that he has a vision and the potential to deliver to the state. Voters have gone off to sleep after hearing millions of promises and ‘only words’ from other political parties in the past. Rahul knows that it is tough to wake up this ‘sleeping beauty’ merely with a kiss. The most pressing challenges of India prevail in UP: poverty, illiteracy and elections driven almost entirely by caste and religious loyalties. ‘’I have a deficiency. I am blind to these things. I do not look at somebody as a Muslim or a Hindu. I am not interested in knowing it either.” It is not an easy task to overcome the deep caste divisions in UP but Rahul is making a sincere effort. “I will continue working in the same manner even after elections. Results do not matter. You will realise after a month that Rahul was right.” The ‘Prince’ knows that the main challenge lies in convincing people of UP to trust him. This is why he doesn’t request them to vote for the Congress unless the candidate requests him to.

ARE THE BELLS TOLLING FOR THE CONGRESS? The party will be disappointed if this high-profile campaigning by their trump card Rahul fails in UP. The Congress has no infrastructure and no cadre. But Rahul is here to stay in politics and prove his mettle; for one UP election, does not a success or failure make! Or does it?

With inputs from Sharad Gupta,

Pramod Kumar, R. Venkataraman

& Priyanka Rai
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017