In search of a winning strategy

2014 poll The best bet for the Congress to overcome perceived anti-incumbency factor will be to sew a win-win UPA III

In search of a winning strategy

The Congress leadership has ten months’ time to repair the dented image of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that it heads, infuse some self-belief into the party rank and file, and also reinforce the ruling alliance before it is time for the next Lok Sabha elections.

A general assessment, shared even by a number of top party leaders, is that the Congress cannot hope to retain power after the next April-May 2014 Lok Sabha elections if effective steps are not taken to arrest and reverse the party’s steadily dwindling fortunes. The vicious cycle of allegations of scams since almost the beginning of UPA-II that involved several top functionaries of the government has taken its toll. The government’s inability to tackle a sharp fall in economic growth rate and high inflation rate has not helped the situation either.
Several Congress leaders have even started privately to make known their reluctance to fight the next election.

Recently, when party president Sonia Gandhi and Vice-president Rahul Gandhi set in motion an exercise to recast the party organisation at Congress headquarters and the Manmohan Singh ministry, there were expectations of major election-oriented surgery. There were persistent speculation for quite some time that Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan could be eased out from Mantralaya in Mumbai and brought back to Delhi, and Ajay Maken, who had just quit the Union ministry, could be projected as Sheila Dikshit’s successor in Delhi. But as it turned out, no major changes came about when the reshuffle of the ministry and Congress set-up was announced last week, except that Rahul inducted some of his confidants like C P Joshi to handle party organisational responsibilities. The ministerial changes that followed were more  in the nature of filling vacant slots.

More than any election-centric look, the party organisational changes actually signalled a steady transition from a Sonia-managed team that was in place for nearly 15 years to the arrival of a Rahul-managed team. The party leadership doesn’t appear to be yet pressing any panic button about a general perception about the existence of a strong anti-incumbency sentiment among voters against the Congress/UPA. The leadership may have its reasons.

After all, nobody gave the party any chance of returning to power in 2004; nor did any pre-poll assessment or opinion poll give the Congress over 200 seats in the 2009 elections. The party is convinced that its populist flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme gave handsome returns in the last general election, and pins hopes on reaping dividends in the next elections as well. The enthusiasm displayed by the party in hurriedly pushing through the cash subsidy transfer indicates it banks on this to help win rural votes. Similarly, the party is in a hurry to enact the proposed food security law and implement it ahead of the elections. The leadership reckons that these schemes and measures would effectively counter the generally perceived anti-incumbency sentiment, at least in rural India, though it doesn’t  share the perception.

However, party leaders concede that the Congress might have lost a great deal of goodwill it enjoyed at the end of UPA I four years ago in urban India. Here is where the party strategists are hyper active to adopt an aggressive campaign strategy to deny the rival BJP from taking advantage of the situation. This is why Congress media managers have taken an extra interest in keeping the BJP’s unending leadership tussle in the limelight. Also, much as the party would have liked to project Rahul as its prime ministerial candidate, the temptation has been suppressed to ensure no avoidable advantage is given to the BJP in the battle for urban India’s vote. The party though no longer reckons that Manmohan Singh would inspire confidence among the middle class voters. As long as the BJP remains divided within and unable to project a clear face, the Congress would benefit from a “TINA” (there is no alternative) situation even in urban India, party managers reckon. The party’s discomfort over the BJP’s projection of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi stems from this strategic point of view and hence, its strategists have been unusually sympathetic about L K Advani’s “fate” in the BJP.

But beyond these, there are other reasons why Congress managers reckon the party won’t sink in the perceived anti-incumbency sentiment against the party and the UPA. “Right in the middle of the several allegations of scams, we won assembly elections and wrested power from the BJP in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka in the recent past. We should have won Punjab as well, though we knew Gujarat would be difficult and our defeat did not come as a surprise,” said a party strategist.

The Congress’ calculations are not entirely misplaced. Over the years, state-level anti-incumbencies have tended to influence voter-choice in parliamentary polls as well. This has been particularly evident in the case of the Congress and the BJP, the main poles in parliamentary elections now for over two decades. For instance, in the last Lok Sabha elections, the Congress swept Uttarakhand while in the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, the BJP did almost the same. The Congress’ near sweep of Andhra Pradesh did not extend to neighbouring Karnataka, where the BJP put up its best performance.

Viewed in this context, upcoming assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, scheduled for November, are very critical for the Congress. The three states and Delhi account for 70 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress is in power in Rajasthan and Delhi while the BJP is in the saddle in MP and Chhattisgarh. Apart from these four states, there are six other states and Union Territories where the electoral battle is directly between the Congress and the BJP, and these ten states and UTs together account for a total of 141 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Congress won 65 seats to the BJP’s 71. The BJP’s reduced strength in the current Lok Sabha is partly due to the fact that the Congress snatched over 20 seats from it. These states might as well decide which of the two parties top the seats tally in the next Lok Sabha.

Trouble in AP and UP

However, the Congress has a tougher challenge elsewhere. The party won as many as 54 of its 206 seats in the current House from just two states – Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. By all accounts, the party lay in a shambles in Andhra Pradesh and faces the worst prospect of ending up in single digit figures in the state if it continues to fail to address its myriad problems, not just the Telangana issue. In UP, it doesn’t appear that the party will do as well as it did the last time, though it currently has an ally in Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal.

A third third front?

The situation presents a prospect of increased dependence on allies and prospective allies. Though the Congress’ ability to win over allies is far better than that of the BJP over the last four years, the party hasn’t done well on this count. Since 2004, it has lost as many as 10 large and small allies from the UPA, the same number as the BJP. In the last 12 months alone, it has lost two major allies – the Trinamool Congress and the DMK.

Given the present uncertainties, prospective allies do not seem to be keen on ceding seats to the Congress by entering into pre-poll tie ups. Their first preference, it seems, is to maximise their presence in the next Lok Sabha to improve their bargaining power. More important, some friends and allies reckon that they can forge a third front and force one of the two big parties to prop up such a front – in a repeat of the 1996 United Front (or, the 1989 National Front) experiment.

Faced with seemingly tougher battle with the BJP in their direct battle zone areas and trouble in AP and UP, the Congress will have to seriously consider reinforcing the UPA by seeking partners in such large states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Bihar, which account for 123 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The party’s overtures to Janata Dal (United) strongman of Bihar Nitish Kumar opens new alliance possibilities, while simultaneously  weakening the rival BJP-led NDA. The party’s failure to bring new pre-poll partners will brighten the prospects for another post-poll third front experiment at the Centre. In these circumstances, the best bet for the Congress to overcome the perceived anti-incumbency sentiment will be to sew a win-win UPA III ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

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