Four states – Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – are scheduled to go to the polls in the next three months. Out of these states, the Congress is in power in Assam (for the last 15 years) and Kerala (last 5 years). The elections are very important for the Congress and its vice-president Rahul Gandhi in particular. Recent surveys show that he has gained a few points in leadership ratings.
State elections this year along with those coming up in 2017 (Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab) and 2018 (Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) in fact would act as semi-finals to the grand finale, or the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
The Congress has chief ministers in eight states and is a junior partner in Bihar currently. Five of these states send less than five MPs each to the Lok Sabha (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur). In effect, the Congress rules in only three states (Assam, Kerala and Karnataka). Two out of these three are in danger of going out of the party’s hand according to initial opinion polls.
Prospects of the Congress in state elections this year
The party has been in power in Assam for the last 15 years and is suffering from anti-incumbency as well as in-fighting. The economy has been on a downward spiral since 2011. Further, for the first time in 30 years, a party like the BJP had more than 30 per cent vote share in any election in the state during the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. The Congress has lost most of the Hindu votes to the BJP and a significant part of the Muslim votes to the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) leaving only rural voters to consider voting for the Congress.
Recent trends have not been healthy. The party lost badly to the BJP in the Lok Sabha as well as municipal elections. Its efforts of forming a mahagathbandhan have crashed. While the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BOPF) have formed an alliance with the BJP, talks with the AIUDF have failed. At this moment there is a high probability that this will swing in favour of the BJP.
Kerala has an uncanny habit of throwing out incumbent governments for the past three decades. Going purely by the trend, it is the turn of the Left Front to win the elections. While the state has progressed well economically as well as on the infrastructure front and women’s welfare, a series of scams have put the government on the defensive. The presence of the BJP has further complicated the politics in the state. In fact, for the first time, the BJP has got over ten per cent vote share in two elections in a row (in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2015 local body elections).
The surveys are showing a high vote share swing against the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The BJP-SNDP alliance which was designed to win the Left Democratic Front (LDF)-Ezhava votes is instead sucking the small share of the Ezhavas who had voted for the Congress in the past.
Upper caste Nairs are moving towards the BJP in large numbers, pushing the Congress to a combination of minorities and small groups of Hindus across various caste groups.
At this moment, there is a high probability that this will swing in favour of the LDF. However, the continued popularity of chief minister Oomen Chandy and the Congress amongst women could still salvage the election for the party.
In West Bengal too, the Congress is not the main contender. The main fight is between the Left and Trinamool Congress. The Left has decided to nominate Surjya Kanta Mishra as the chief ministerial candidate. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has delivered outstanding growth in rural West Bengal but her hold on urban West Bengal and minorities is not very strong.
Further, there are pockets in parts of West Bengal where the Congress continues to remain strong. The BJP is also likely to do better than before on the back of youth and Hindi-speaking votes, picking up some of the anti-incumbency votes in the process.
The only way the Congress can come to power is to either align with the Left or damage the Trinamool sufficiently (resulting in a hung assembly), so that Mamata would need its support to form the next government. At this moment, talks with the Left are still inconclusive (in fact, according to a NDTV news report of March 7, the Communist Party of India has denied any alliance formation as we were in the midst of writing the article).
The Left is working on a strategy to target swing seats and urban seats where the Trinamool appears to be struggling, and persuade at least ten per cent of the Muslim voters to move from the Trinamool to the Left. At this moment, there is a high probability that the Trinamool will return to power. However, this could change if there is an alliance between Left and Congress.
Congress is a non-entity in the state. It has tied up with the DMK-led alliance and is expected to get some seats to contest as it did in Bihar (less than 50). A win or a loss here would entirely be because of the DMK. The state, like Kerala, has witnessed a trend for the past three decades where incumbent governments have been thrown out.
This is the first time in the past 30 years that there are indications that that trend may be broken. While the AIADMK was a runaway winner in the Lok Sabha elections, the conviction/acquittal of chief minister J Jayalalithaa and the poor handling of the floods in north Tamil Nadu have severely damaged the chances of the AIADMK.
Recent opinion polls show that the AIADMK is only marginally ahead and the momentum is with the DMK. However, Jayalalithaa continues to enjoy high ratings amongst voters outside north Tamil Nadu. While these elections are now too close to call, one cannot completely rule out the DMK-Congress alliance as of now, in line with the trend.
All in all, the chances of the Congress are the best in Tamil Nadu, followed by Kerala, West Bengal and then Assam. However, at this moment, it could end as badly as 0-4 if things do not improve over the next one-two months.
Last 5 years’ report card of Rahul Gandhi
In 2011, Rahul passed with flying colours as the Congress won three out of four states which went to the polls. It won Kerala, in line with the trend, it managed to retain Assam and along with Mamata, dislodged the Left Front rule of 34 years in West Bengal.
In 2012, it lost all the three states that went to the polls, followed by a poor performance in 2013. The only silver lining was that it managed to win Karnataka, helped by BS Yeddyurappa’s split from the BJP. Even if you are a hardcore Rahul supporter, the less you talk about 2014 and 2015 the better. In 2015, the Congress was wiped out in Delhi (nil seats). In Bihar it managed to improve its tally riding on the Nitish-Lalu’s charisma.
*Won in alliance with Trinamool Congress, and later left the alliance as Mamata Banerjee walked out of the UPA.
Note: Only states which send more than 5 MPs have been considered for the above table.
Resultant impact of 2016 state polls: Will it accelerate a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi coined the slogan “Congress-mukt Bharat” in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. This was lapped up by the people fed up with the scam-ridden UPA II government. The Congress’ performance in 2013 and 2014 has added credence to the theory.
The loss of two more States (Assam and Kerala) after having lost Arunachal Pradesh last month (owing to a split) will leave the Congress in control of just one large state – Karnataka. This will take the Congress to the depths of 1999 and 1977 and close to realising Modi’s dream of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.
Whether the Congress can recover from this, only time will tell. While it is a party with a rich history, the organisation structure and culture needs substantial overhaul (similar to the Labour party under Tony Blair) if it wishes to compete with a modern party like the BJP.
While there appears to be some work being done, a substantial overhaul is still not visible to the average voter. Further losses could question the leadership of Rahul in his party, but could probably be a great opportunity to introduce substantial reforms in the party and talk about the issues which impact the common man and play a constructive role in opposition.
PS: The chart above from our forthcoming book on the Congress.