The Meaning of the Congress Thrashing

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The Meaning of the Congress Thrashing

India’s ruling Congress party has suffered a major setback in key assembly elections. Does the rise of regional powers spell the end of a Congress-led government?

The just-announced results of polls for five state legislatures in India were bad news for the country’s major “national” parties. Indeed, they may well herald a substantial fall in support for the ruling Congress party and Bharatiya Janata Party that will force the former to join forces with regional parties if it is to have any chance of retaining power at the next general election.

In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of MPs to parliament, an extraordinary result saw the Samajwadi Party’s support soar past the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, securing 224 of the 403 seats available, compared with the BSP’s 80. The Congress and the BJP, in contrast, both fared poorly. The former has escaped a washout only because it tied up with a regional party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which is influential with a single caste, the Jats. The BJP, meanwhile, lost four seats.

The main factor behind the Congress party’s poor performance seems to have been a shift in the Muslim vote from the BSP towards the SP. In 2005, the disastrous decision by the SP to induct a known anti-Muslim BJP leader, Kalyan Singh, into the party led to the desertion of much of the Muslim support the party had enjoyed. But these voters seem to have returned to the SP, a crucial factor considering Muslims form the largest voting bloc in 170 assembly constituencies, and are the second largest in 75.

Another reason Muslims deserted the BSP has been the widespread gossip (helpfully spread by the Congress Party and the SP) that the BSP and the BJP were planning a post-poll alliance. After the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in BJP-ruled Gujarat, Muslims have grown allergic to the BJP, a distaste that first manifested itself after the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid (in Uttar Pradesh) by a BJP-oriented mob.

Although Muslims have been given preferential treatment by outgoing Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister  Mayawati that is next only to her own support base of “Dalits,” the fear that she would ally with the BJP after the polls seems to have resulted in a flow of Muslim votes to the Samajwadi Party, securing for it a resounding victory. (Although, of course, its defeat may come as a blessing for the BSP in the 2014
parliamentary polls, should the SP revert to the thuggish, graft-ridden style of governance obvious in its earlier stints in power).

Even in the Punjab, the BJP proved to be an emaciated ally of the regional Sikh-based party Shiromani Akali Dal, which ensured its retention of power through simple good performance. Only in Goa was there a straight fight between Congress and the BJP, where the alienation of Hindus from Sonia Gandhi's party is clear in a state where more than a quarter of the state is Christian. The aggressive touting of “minority rights” by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul has led to a disconnect between them and the majority Hindu population. At the same time, Muslims don’t trust the Congress, except in states where there’s no other option except Congress to defeat the BJP.

This ought to have given a boost to the BJP, except for the fact that the Delhi-based leadership of the party is uncomfortable with sectarian agendas, and sought to re-package itself as a moderate, inclusivist party. Both Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and youth icon Varun Gandhi (a cousin of Rahul Gandhi) were kept away from the campaign.  This seems to have been a mistake, as the fiery Modi and the acerbic Varun may have significantly spiced up the campaign.

Looking at present trends, it seems likely that India will have a “third front” government within a couple of years at most, the way it did in 1990 and in 1996-98. For the Congress party, its miserable performance throws into doubt its success on July 19, when the election for president takes place.

Should that go to an opposition candidate, the possibility of the Manmohan Singh government surviving may become too close to call.