Can Congress, weakened by recent losses, hold its ground against resurgent BJP?

With its nationwide reach, Congress remains pivotal within the INDIA bloc, yet it faces a critical test in 152 seats where it contests BJP head-on.

Published : Feb 21, 2024 23:25 IST - 13 MINS READ

Publicity material and flags of both the BJP and the Congress for sale in Jaipur in November 2018.

Publicity material and flags of both the BJP and the Congress for sale in Jaipur in November 2018. | Photo Credit: ROHIT JAIN PARAS

Hours after the 2020 Bihar Assembly election results were declared, the knives were out in the Mahagathbandhan. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Shivanand Tiwari slammed the Congress for “shackling the grand alliance” (Congress mahagathbandhan ke paon me zanjeer ban gayi). “This is not right. In other States, too, the Congress lays emphasis on contesting more and more seats. This way it fails to win the maximum number of seats. It should introspect...,” Tiwari had said then.

The Congress could win only 19 of the 70 seats it contested in alliance with the RJD and the Left. The Mahagathbandhan won 110 seats against the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) 115. The RJD, which emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats, blamed the Congress for reducing the alliance’s tally.

As the Congress’ strength is whittled down, the story is repeated across States, especially in north India. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Congress won just seven of the 114 seats it contested in alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP), which won 47 of the 311 seats it contested. In 2002, when the Congress contested alone, it won just two seats, while the SP got 64. This is why the Trinamool Congress and the SP are playing hard ball now, giving the Congress two and 11 seats in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, respectively.

The regional parties cite the Congress’ poor showing in the recent State elections to say that it is they who are actually stopping the Narendra Modi juggernaut in their own States—be it Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the AAP in Delhi and Punjab, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, and the SP and the RJD as the main challengers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Also Read | Halting the juggernaut

The first question that arises from all this is the ability of the Congress to win the maximum number of the seats it wrangles from its alliance partners. Its poor strike rate obviously makes its partners resentful. The second is that its alliance partners see a rise in their tally when they go it alone in the States. Then there are the Congress party’s fears that it may be a risky proposition to leave too many seats to the regional satraps, particularly now that the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, or RLD, have quit the INDIA bloc and joined the NDA. Finally, there is the all-important question of the grand old party’s strength and winning potential in States where it goes head to head with the BJP.

The Congress is locked in a direct contest with the BJP in 152 seats: Madhya Pradesh (29), Chhattisgarh (11), Rajasthan (25), Karnataka (28), Gujarat (26), Assam (14), Himachal Pradesh (4), Haryana (10), and Uttarakhand (5). The road to power for the Congress has to originate from the States at a time when the BJP has a strong centre. And the challenges emerge wherever the Congress is the prime challenger to the BJP.

The big fights

While the Congress, by virtue of its pan-India presence, remains the glue for the partners in the INDIA bloc, the big fights will be the direct ones between the BJP and the Congress, particularly in the larger States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and to an extent Chhattisgarh. In 2023, the Congress lost the Assembly elections in these three States to the BJP although it won the relatively smaller State of Himachal Pradesh months earlier. The party’s poor showing has given the BJP the hope that 2024 can be a walkover, given that in nearly 200 seats the contest will be only between the two national parties.

The defeats in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, in particular, were a rude shock to the Congress because it had dislodged the BJP from power in 2018 after 15 years in the opposition. But Jyotiraditya Scindia’s walkout in 2020 with his band of supporters helped the BJP return to power. The Congress hoped this would create a sympathy wave for it in Madhya Pradesh even as Chhattisgarh, led by Bhupesh Baghel, seemed to be a done deal. In fact, in 2018, in the last Chhattisgarh Assembly election, the BJP’s vote percentage had declined by 8.4 per cent compared with 2013. So, 2023 has been a massive comeback for the BJP in this tribal-majority State.

Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are won or lost by narrow margins in vote percentage. In 2018, the Congress won Madhya Pradesh with 40 per cent votes against the BJP’s 41 per cent. In Rajasthan, the Congress won 100 seats with 38.85 per cent votes against the BJP’s 73 seats with 33.8 per cent of the votes.

RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, in Sasaram district on February 16.

RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, in Sasaram district on February 16. | Photo Credit: ANI

That the BJP won these three States despite the fatigue against Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, the power tussle with Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, and having no chief ministerial face in Chhattisgarh is all the more worrying for the Congress. A close look at the ground situation reveals some factors the party could introspect upon.

In Madhya Pradesh, it is telling that the triumvirate of Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh, and Jyotiraditya Scindia broke up less than two years after they put up a show of unity to win the 2018 election. Today, Scindia is with the BJP, Kamal Nath at 77 has been sidelined after the Assembly election defeat last year, and Digvijaya Singh at 76 is also not in the hot seat. The party recently appointed the younger Jitu Patwari as its State chief, but the point is that no second-rung leadership has emerged in the State in the last two decades.

In Chhattisgarh, the old rivalry between Baghel and T.S. Singhdeo seems to have had its impact, with the Congress losing a substantial number of votes among tribal communities to the BJP. And in Rajasthan, it is again an old rivalry—between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot—that puts paid to hopes of victory. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh send 65 members to the Lok Sabha, and the odds are stacked heavily against the Congress.

The only silver lining could be the absence of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, and Vasundhara Raje for the BJP in these States, but whether the Congress will benefit from this remains to be seen. There are, of course, the southern States where it is perhaps better placed. In Karnataka and Telangana (two States where the Congress is in power on its own), in Kerala where it is the principal opposition party, and in Andhra Pradesh where it is edging forward, its chances look good. In Tamil Nadu, of course, it is part of the DMK-led alliance.

The north-eastern region, with 25 Lok Sabha seats, is the other catchment area for the Congress, where the ruling BJP looks to be on the back foot after its mishandling of the Manipur crisis. Rahul Gandhi started his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from Manipur and seems to have received good traction.

As for the BJP, it is in power in 16 States—in 12 on its own and in the rest in coalition—while the Congress rules three States, Karnataka, Telangana, and Himachal Pradesh, on its own and as junior partner in coalitions in Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. With governments in Delhi and Punjab, the AAP is the third major national party.

Uttar Pradesh has been the Achilles heel for the Congress for the past three decades, the last one decade stamping out whatever little remained of the party. After winning just eight of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 and 47 of 403 Assembly seats in the 2012 Assembly election, the BJP gained a whopping 71 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; the Congress slumped to just two from the 21 it had won in 2009.

The SP won five seats, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could not open its account. Since then, the BJP has kept a vice-like grip on Uttar Pradesh with a 41.29 per cent vote share against the SP’s 32.1 per cent, the BSP’s 12.88 per cent, and the Congress’ 2.32 per cent. From this it is clear that an SP-Congress alliance will not make much difference, and the possibility of an SP-BSP-Congress grand alliance is slim.

Sharat Pradhan, who has tracked the politics of the Hindi belt, particularly Uttar Pradesh, from up close, told Frontline that the Congress might have lost in the recent Assembly elections in these States, but there is no denying that the party has the potential to give the BJP a run for its money in these States in the national election.

In Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Telangana, and Karnataka, where the BJP and the Congress go head to head, the Congress appears to have the upper hand. But what dealt a body blow to the Congress was the break-up of its two crucial allies, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in July 2023 and the Shiv Sena in June 2022, which sealed the fate of its alliance governments in cash-rich Maharashtra, which sends 48 members to the Lok Sabha. With the Eknath Shinde-led Sena faction and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction now in its pocket, the BJP is hoping to get close to 41 seats, which earlier looked impossible.

  • The Congress might be the key force uniting different parties in the India alliance, but it needs to win tough fights against the BJP in 152 seats.
  • After losing recent elections, the Congress is blamed by regional parties for helping the BJP win, making them lose too. Now, Congress fears relying on smaller parties after some joined the BJP.
  • Sensing this crisis, the BJP quickly brought back old friends like JD(U) to join them, making the Congress even more nervous about facing a stronger opponent.

Regional players

In Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Bihar, the main contest is between the large regional players and the BJP. “Despite its infirmities and failures, however, the Congress continues to retain a small percentage of its traditional base vote. No matter how small or even minuscule in some parts, the Congress vote could help the INDIA bloc ride over the BJP in constituencies where the winning margins are thin,” Pradhan told Frontline.

The battered Congress has once again hit the streets, hopeful that the issue of unemployment will strike a chord with the youth, that the situation in Manipur will harm the BJP’s prospects in the north-eastern States, and that Rahul Gandhi’s two Bharat Jodo yatras will create goodwill for the party. But politics in the nation has moved full circle, with the BJP turning into a giant election machinery in the past 10 years and the ruling party’s appetite for power showing no signs of fatigue.

Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi in June 2022.

Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi in June 2022. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Even as concrete seat-sharing agreements and a common plan continue to elude the INDIA bloc despite multiple meetings, the BJP has moved with alacrity to reinduct old allies—the JD(U) in Bihar, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, Jayant Chaudhary’s RLD in Uttar Pradesh, and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha in Bihar—so that the NDA looks formidable. In this endeavour, unlike the Congress, Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly stooped to conquer, something that was evident in 2019 as well, when the BJP wooed back Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), offering it 16 seats in the Lok Sabha election despite the mere two seats it won in 2014.

Former Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha, author ofThe Great Unravelling: India after 2014, believes that despite this lacklustre background, the Congress remains the lynchpin of an opposition pushback against the BJP due to its historical pan-India presence. “This election offers the Congress the last opportunity to resuscitate itself. The INDIA bloc can triumph only if the Congress delivers,” Jha said. “The most crucial States will be Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. Between them, they account for 238 Lok Sabha seats. In 2019, the combined alliance won just 37 seats, leaving huge room for a potential upside. This is where Nitish Kumar leaving INDIA can be a big blow, as the NDA could have been damaged by an RJD-Congress-JD(U) trifecta. In Karnataka and Maharashtra, the INDIA bloc has to improve its tally, or it will be the kiss of death. Can Mamata Banerjee increase her tally and reduce the BJP to single digits? After Ram Mandir, everyone is expecting a BJP wave in the 80-seat Uttar Pradesh, and if the Samajwadi Party cannot withstand the deluge, the alliance will be seriously devastated again,” Jha told Frontline.

Fighting in silos

One issue that experts point to is that the Congress fights elections in a silo, even organisationally, with the Youth Congress now almost confined to occasional agitations, more often in Delhi, the National Students’ Union of India lacking vigour, and organisations such as the Congress Seva Dal still stuck to their past glory.

In their book The Rise Of the BJP: The Making of the World’s Largest Political Party, BJP leader Bhupender Yadav and the economist Ila Patnaik write: “[W]hile the BJP’s journey has been marked by the active participation of a large number of sister organisations, other parties in India operate mainly as a single organisation.”

Also Read | Rahul Gandhi, Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, and the power of walking

Prem Singh, former teacher of Delhi University and a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, says a non-BJP, non-Congress front is the need of the hour. “There should have been an independent alliance of parties generally called the third force of politics apart from Congress and BJP by the name of Third Front, National Front, or by any other suitable name much before Lok Sabha election 2024. In fact, this tactic should have been applied in 2014. There had been some serious efforts in that direction before the election. If those efforts had been successful, at least Indian politics would not have seen the multidimensional downfall that has happened after 2014. The damage could have been controlled to some extent by forming a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance in 2019. If a third front had been formed, and its common minimum programme and the name of the prime ministerial candidate had been put before the public, then not only would the regional parties have remained united, some parties of the NDA fold could also have joined the front.”

In the current impasse, Singh advocates that the INDIA bloc and the Congress come to an understanding. “Where the Congress is in direct contest with the BJP, the front should not field its candidates and vice versa. The Congress should announce that in case of victory of the front, it will support the front government from outside for a full five-year term. If the position of the Congress as a national party improves after this election and in the next five years, then the front should promise to support its government in the 2029 elections.”

Regardless of how its allies perform, “finally, it is the Congress that must do the heavy lifting,” said Jha.

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