'Cong should be ready to be treated as a regional party

Congress should be ready to be treated as a regional party

The results of the Karnataka Assembly elections were eagerly awaited as many felt it would give an indication of what is in store in the run-up to the 2019 elections. A hung Assembly, a surprise post-poll alliance between the Congress and the JD(S), and the BJP's aborted attempt to form a government have made it interesting. Sanjay Kumar, Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) who specialises in electoral politics, tells Shemin Joy of DH what he thinks about the verdict and its possible impact on the 2019 polls.

What does the Karnataka results mean for the 2019 polls?

I don't attach too much importance to a verdict in one state and it having an impact in another state or even in the Lok Sabha elections. But the verdict in Karnataka does have a significance for both the parties, more for Congress. Not in electoral terms but boosting the morale of party workers. Congress has been getting defeated in election after election. So there was a hope that if Congress manages to win Karnataka, they would actually go into the next round of Assembly polls and Lok Sabha elections with a boosted morale. It could have turned the whole idea that BJP is invincible into a myth.

With this defeat, I don’t buy the argument that Congress has been wiped out. Congress' vote-share has not gone down and its support base is intact. But finally what you needed was a victory to form a government. This result will have an effect on the morale of party workers. More than that, I think it is more of the challenge it is posing to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. I think there may be something going on within the Congress also. Elections are about perception. So generally a perception is being created that Rahul Gandhi can't be of use, he can't even win one election for the party. So how useful is this man who is heading a party and how can he take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

If I wanted to use a phrase, I say the Congress is in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as it is losing state after state. But the defeat for BJP, in the sense it does not manage to form the government or continue in power, I consider it just like an injury on the body – like an injury on the hand or leg that it does not affect your day-to-day functioning. But if you are in the ICU, it affects various kinds of functioning. That is the significance of Karnataka.

Are you saying Rahul Gandhi's leadership has come in question and it is not aiding Congress' fortune?

Definitely. This is not the first election he has lost. This is not the first time that people are questioning his leadership. We don't hear loud voices from within the party. But I am just talking in terms of what a common man is thinking. People suspect his abilities of leadership. Normally people attach victories to your leadership qualities. You win an election, people think you are a great leader. If you don't win an election, people think you are a bad leader. Since Rahul Gandhi has not been able to pull a victory for the party, people think he is a bad leader, he has no abilities, he can't match to the abilities of Modi. So this notion or idea will get more penetrated among the minds of common man. This man cannot. That he is not a good leader, he can't win an election. So your challenge is greater now on the leadership question compared to the past.

While comparing BJP and Congress, you spoke about Congress being in ICU. So do you see the BJP emerging as the single largest party in Karnataka boosting the morale of party workers in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan ahead of Assembly polls this year?

Karnataka is a different kind of a verdict. Congress and JD(S) alliance are upbeat after they managed to stitch a post-poll alliance. Even after becoming the single largest party, BJP has been slightly demoralised. I am not saying they are hugely demoralised. But they are on a slight backfoot. This happened in Gujarat also where, in electoral terms, they were much better placed. They got a majority. They formed the government. Still, the atmosphere was that the BJP was on the backfoot because they lost lots of seats. Congress in Gujarat even after losing elections was upbeat. The atmosphere was created as such that Congress has won the elections and BJP has lost the elections. So what is happening in Karnataka as of today? The atmosphere is that the BJP is somehow being pushed into a corner, Congress-JD(S) is upbeat. But as soon as the BJP managed to form the government and if it manages to continue in government, I think BJP will be in an upbeat mood.

So, we cannot say that Congress is out of the game in 2019 and that it is not like 2014?

Before the 2014 results came out, everybody believed Congress will lose power but nobody thought that it would be reduced to 44. Everybody is expecting that BJP will come down in 2019. We all think that BJP has peaked in some states in the north like Madhya Pradesh,  Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. For the Congress, pulling down the BJP in the Hindi speaking states is not that easy. Yes, BJP cannot go beyond the numbers it got in 2014. Based on this assumption, anticipating that BJP will be pulled down by sizeable number in the north is not that right. I say this because if you look at the gap between Congress and BJP in Rajasthan and Gujarat where they have won all the states. Delhi, Uttarakhand and Himachal also they won all seats. In all these states, BJP has close to 50 % or more votes-share. The gap between BJP and Congress is very wide in terms of vote-share, which comes to 13 to 15%. So, Congress needs a big swing in its favour. That swing can only be from the BJP because it is a bipolar contest. Positive swing in favour of Congress would mean BJP will lose. But Congress needs to engineer a swing between 12 to 15% to win even half of the seats in these states. Pulling down BJP from 25 in Rajasthan to 12-13 seats means a 15% swing. Can it be possible? Do we see that kind of a political ground? I don't think, at least I don't see. In order to anticipate that there will be a 15% swing away from BJP, we need a huge resentment against the BJP.

But there is farm distress, unemployment, economy is not doing well. Wouldn't it affect BJP?

Definitely, all this will affect BJP. It will bring down the votes of BJP. Congress will gain but not to the extent as we tend to believe. BJP's vote-share may come down by 5% to 10%. But even if BJP's vote share is down by 10%, it does not mean that Opposition is on the top. Congress will manage to win 5 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan by a 10% swing. Similarly out of 26 seats in Gujarat, Congress may win 6 with a 10% swing. The rest will go to the BJP. So all this – farmer distress, unemployment, unhappiness etc –  will account for a negative swing of 7-8% against the BJP in the big states where its vote share has already peaked in 2014.

Congress alone can't take on BJP successfully. Do think united Opposition can change the scenario?

Before Karnataka, the Congress might have thought that there would be a three-cornered contest with Congress holding one pole and there would be some regional parties that would align with it, as it cannot attract a large number of regional parties. On the other side, there will be adjustments among regional parties. It won't be like a third front but would be a loose coalition putting up candidates against BJP. I think after Karnataka results, the Congress has moved in that direction by actually accepting Kumaraswamy as the Chief Ministerial candidate. Now in order to put BJP on the backfoot, I think what parties need to do is to have a common front. So the election should be on two poles – BJP and against BJP. In that alliance, Congress needs to be a partner and they have to come down from a high pedestal to think that they are also one of the regional parties. So it can't be that Congress would like to have a bigger say in the alliance. Thinking within the party should be that they are also one of the regional parties. They should be ready to be treated as a regional partner like Mamata Banerjee or K Chandrasekhar Rao or Chandrababu Naidu or Sharad Pawar.

It should not be difficult. It is only in a couple of states where it would be difficult for the Congress. All the north Indian states, the heartland states, these regional parties do not have a large say. They are not going to demand a large number of seats. So in all these states, it would be easy for the Congress to persuade the regional parties to support them. But the question is can Congress gain from the support of these parties in a state like Madhya Pradesh. The only gain the Congress can get is if the BSP gets on board and if it decides to support it in all these states where it has a small number of votes. If these BSP votes get added to Congress, it will benefit them.

In many states, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they will have to be satisfied with a very small number of seats. The difficulty is going to be in Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal. In Odisha, they think they are the opponent of the ruling BJD. But I think they will be making a mistake if they think that BJP has not emerged strongly in Odisha. In West Bengal also, BJP is emerging very strong. So Congress will have to form an alliance with BJD in Odisha. They have to be ready to be a junior partner. So from an equal partner or a party which had ruled the state and has been a principle opposition party for a very long time, now they will have to accept the position of a junior coalition partner in many states. If they don't do that, then it would be very difficult for the Opposition to pose a challenge to the BJP.

Do you think Congress has shown its willingness through the post-poll alliance with JD(S)?

I think they have given some indications that now they are ready. They have already demonstrated it. In a state like Karnataka, they are ready to be a junior partner. They have not even shown an inclination for being a coalition partner. They said we will give unconditional support. So they have given early signs but the question is will Congress do this in other states. In Andhra Pradesh,  Congress presence is very thin, so it doesn't have that problem. I think West Bengal and Odisha are a challenge.

There is a perception that Congress has lost momentum after the impressive performance in Gujarat elections. How do you see this?

I don't think so. Elections are about perceptions. Why do we say Congress gained momentum in Gujarat and lost momentum in Karnataka? In Gujarat, Congress could not improve its vote-share substantially. It improved by half a percent or so. The gap between BJP and Congress was 8-9%. Yes, Congress managed to win more seats. That was only because of the distribution of votes. In Karnataka, Congress improved its vote-share by 2% compared to the previous elections and it leads over BJP by 2%. So I don't see any sign of Congress losing momentum only because they lost seats. Yes, elections are about winning seats. You may have 50% votes but if you don’t win seats, you won't form the government. That's true but that is in an electoral context. If a party gets 35-40% votes and we say support base of the party is not there, the party has been eroded, I don't think that is a good analysis.

What is your take on Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi campaign plank?

That will be suicidal. I think BJP would love to pitch it as a contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The strategy for Congress should be to shield Rahul Gandhi as much as possible and focus the elections on the failures of the BJP government – on its policies, programmes during the last four-five years. I think to attack the policies and programmes of the government, criticise the government citing data. Throw lots and lots of data, figures. They have to come out with facts and figures to say there have been several schemes that have been initiated but what has happened. What is the achievement? How has this changed the lives of people? Have these policies been able to change the lives of people?

Then, Modi is very very popular. If somebody criticises a very popular man whether it is Modi or cricketer or someone else, people easily don't buy it. So the best bet for the Congress is to not attack Modi, not let the election turn into a contest between Rahul Gandhi and Modi. Let regional leaders take charge of the campaigning in states and criticise the government in terms of policies and programmes.

What is your take on Governor Vajubhai Vala inviting B S Yeddyurappa to form the government and perception it would have on the public?

It is very strange. There are two teams. One team is ready with the list of players. Other team says we don't have players to play the match at this moment. But we are sure we will get players. So how does somebody invite a team which has fewer players and ask them to play the game when another team is sitting with enough players, whom you do not invite to play the match. This gives the common man a feeling that something is happening.

Are there any worrying signs for the BJP?

I don't think there is any worrying sign for BJP. The BJP vote share has also gone up in Karnataka. It has performed well. BJP should be in an upbeat mood. They shouldn't feel demoralised. They have 104 seats. It would have been much better if they had crossed the half-way mark. The only worrying sign is that some people believe BJP should not have done what it has done now. But if the BJP manages to continue in government, people will forget all this in a couple of months. I don't think there is any damage to the BJP.

Do you think 2019 is still an open game or the BJP has an edge?

It is heavily tilted towards the BJP. There is no way that anyone else can form the government in 2019. Only thing is that whether BJP will get 200 seats or 220 seats or get majority or go less than 200. These are the scenarios. BJP will certainly be the single largest party. The gap between the first and second party would be very large, almost 100 seats. One should not be incorrectly understood that I am saying that 2019 is still an open game. BJP has a huge edge over other parties.
 

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'Cong should be ready to be treated as a regional party

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