Congress vs. the Rest
by Ishan Bakshi on 29 May 2009 1 Comment

Some have hailed it as the resurgence of the Congress party; some have described it as an inflection point; some have even called it the end of religious and caste-based politics in India. However one describes it, the results of Election 2009 took everyone by surprise. 

Political observers, quick to proffer their explanations for what they called a groundbreaking outcome, were unanimous in pronouncing it a national ‘pro development, governance and stability’ wave in favour of the Congress. The same theory was extended to vindicate the victories of Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Naveen Patnaik in Orissa.

However, the unexpected outcome in Gujarat defies this theory. Modi was heralded as Prime Minister-in-making by none other than Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani. Praises were heaped on him for his unquestionable role in the development of Gujarat. A national sentiment in favour of development should have seen the BJP faring better than a mere 15-seat victory.

The revealing statistic here is: of those fifteen seats, seven were won by a margin of less than three percent (The corresponding figures for the state and national elections were much higher last time). This implies that the BJP barely managed to scrape through in Gujarat, contrary to what a pro-development vote should have achieved for them.

In states where the Congress has swept, is it because of a vote for development? Could the presence of a divided and fractured opposition or the failure of the opposition to project itself as a viable alternative have titled the balance in Congress’ favour? 

In the run up to the elections, a lot of emphasis was laid on the growing clout of regional parties. Their ability to translate local issues into votes on a much larger scale than ever before made many believe in the possibility of them playing kingmaker. However, regional pre-poll alliances with potential kingmakers were not in vogue this time around. In these elections, the key states were arguably: Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal

Strategic Upper Hand

In Maharashtra, a weakened BJP-Shiv Sena-led alliance, a result of the split in the Thackeray family, failed to put up a good fight against Sharad Pawar and the Congress. Given that Sharad Pawar was a serving UPA cabinet member, the probability of his staying with a Congress-led government was most likely.

In Orissa, BJP suffered a severe blow with Naveen Patnaik parting ways and going alone in the elections, increasing the possibility of an alliance with the Congress at the centre. An intuitive general preserves his fire power, allowing the smaller ‘enemy’ to win a battle while he wins the war. Naveen Patnaik trounced the competition both in terms of seats and the votes polled. A similar situation was observed in Bihar.

Bihar has always been a regional party bastion and not a stronghold for either the BJP or the Congress. With both Lalu and Paswan being UPA supporters, the odd-one-out was Nitish Kumar. Although he a former NDA ally, his ‘neutral’ stance (allegedly because of a desire to forge an alliance with anyone who would grant special status to Bihar) could have favoured either party in government formation. This means that a victory for either of the three would further strengthen Congress’ chances of forming the central government. In Bihar, the JD (U) led by Nitish Kumar completely stamped its supremacy. It swept not only in terms of number of seats but also in terms of percentage of votes polled, winning by a staggering margin. In twelve seats, the main opposition candidate failed to garner even thirty percent of votes polled. The general smiled. 

Tamil Nadu was a three-way battle between the DMK, AIADMK and the Congress. While DMK was already part of the central government, it was not quite unimaginable to envision Jayalalithaa as part of the UPA-led government. Her neutral stance, like Nitish Kumar’s, could be considered as favouring both parties, whoever was closer to government formation.

West Bengal was a contest between Mamata Banerjee and the Left. Although there were serious ideological differences between the Left and Congress, it would be inconceivable for the Left to support a BJP-led government. A strategic pre-poll alliance with Mamata Banerjee placed Congress in the unique position of being able to garner the support of either. The unexpected outcome in the Marxist heartland was not a result of a national pro-development wave but the ability of Mamata Banerjee to effectively take advantage of local state issues.  

The deciding battles

With the possibility of a Congress-led central government, irrespective of the outcome in the above states, quite high, the focus of the war turned to the deciding states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

An editorial in a leading newspaper touted Chandrababu Naidu as kingmaker at the centre. With previous affiliations with the BJP, a strong performance in conjunction with other events would have turned the tide in BJP’s favour. A stellar performance was required by the Congress to upset the growing clout of Naidu. As the man in charge, Rajshekhar Reddy completely swept the polls.

In a majority of seats the main opposition candidate fared badly, not even garnering thirty percent of the votes. “Kingmaker” Naidu failed miserably managing to win a miniscule number of seats and that too by a margin of less than four percent. In Gujarat, the BJP’s point man Narendra Modi was expected to deliver a strong performance. His far reaching appeal and the development of Gujarat under him made him the party’s star campaigner. A strong performance by the BJP would have strengthened its chances of forming the government. Realizing this Congress went on the offensive, with assaults on Modi coming from all fronts.

Mayawati’s prime ministerial ambitions, Samajwadi Party’s divisive politics, and Congress’ decision to go alone for the 80 seats in UP under Rahul Gandhi, set the stage for the last great battle in the war for supremacy. A sweep by the BSP and a less than convincing performance by an on-again-off-again ally, the SP, would have placed the Congress in a very precarious position. Calling it “involvement of youth in politics,” the Congress strategically under the leadership of crowd puller Rahul Gandhi, went on the offensive. Highlighting the miserable performance of the government under Mayawati and the SP, the Congress was able to decisively turn, a previously thought of two-way battle, it in its favour. 

If the all-India scenario remained the same and opinion polls prediction of the outcome of these three states turned out to be true, the possibility of government-formation by the BJP could be easily envisaged with support being drawn majorly from erstwhile partners, namely the JD(U), TDP and others. Pre-election calculations would have revealed the drawbacks of not focusing on these three states. The inability of the BJP to envision such an outcome paved the way for a Congress victory.

The author is a financial analyst

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