The developments of the past few weeks indicates that the Congress is on an offensive and the BJP seems to be pushed on the backfoot over the national political scenario. The party had called for a nationwide bandh over the issue of rising fuel prices, that was supported by 21 other parties.
The Congress has been asking some difficult but relevant questions over the Rafale deal and the increasing prices of fuel. While the BJP is trying to offer some explanations, it is at the same time trying to evade some of these issues, mainly over Rafale. The Congress has also done well in various byelections in the recent past in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh either fighting alone or in alliance with regional parties. But all these won’t make the path for the revival of the Congress easy. The road to 2019 remains extremely difficult for the Congress. The erosion of the party’s support base is far deeper than what is visible from its extremely poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when it managed to win only 44 Lok Sabha seats and polled 19.3 per cent of the vote.
It is important to note that not only has the Congress’ voteshare declined in the Lok Sabha elections, there is a corresponding decline in the party’s support base even in the state Assembly elections. An analysis of the voteshare of the Congress in various Assembly elections suggest that from an overall voteshare of 45 per cent during all Assembly elections held in the first decade soon after Independence, in 1951-61 (26 Assembly elections), it has declined to 23 per cent during all Assembly elections (72) held over the last decade (2007-2018). It is important to note that the decline in the Congress’ support base for Assembly elections had begun soon after the first decade, as seen in the Lok Sabha elections. During the second decade (1961-71), its voteshare in Assembly elections declined to 41 per cent, in all the state Assembly elections held in the third and the fourth decades (1974-84 and 1985-95), it fell to 32 per cent, while in the 1996-2007 period, it declined further to 24 per cent.
The overall voteshare of the Congress in state Assembly elections held in different decades might suggest that a marginal increase in the support base might change the fortunes of the party, as in the first-past-the-post electoral system and with multi-party contests in many states, it may be able to win elections as soon as its voteshare crosses the 30 per cent mark. But the Congress’ support base is much worse than it looks from these average voteshare figures. Of the 72 Assembly elections held in the past decade, it could get more than 40 per cent votes only in 11 Assembly polls; while its voteshare was less than 15 per cent in 15 Assembly elections. In another 17 Assembly elections, its voteshare remained between 15 to 29 per cent, while in 29 Assembly elections it polled between 30-40 per cent votes. In many big states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal, which account for a large number of Lok Sabha seats (226 Lok Sabha seats) its voteshare is dismal and the party has been pushed to the number four or five positions both in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. With such a dismal performance, it may be very difficult for the Congress to bounce back and at least be seen as a serious contender in the electoral race.
It is true that there is growing dissatisfaction of the people with the BJP-led NDA government, mainly due to its failure on the economic front. The findings of the various surveys over the past few months suggest that this dissatisfaction is largely due to the government’s failure to control the price rise and its failure to create jobs for the unemployed youth. In the past we have seen governments being voted out of power when the people have raised serious questions about economic development.
The findings of the survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies during the 2004 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls clearly indicate the people’s dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the government of the day. Surveys suggest that just before the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, economic issues did became important for voters.The ruling BJP-led colation’s election campaign during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls focused on the slogan of “India Shining”. The members of the ruling coalition believed the government had done reasonably well on the economic front, but on the contrary surveys suggested that 31 per cent of people felt that its economic policies benefited only rich people, while only 15 per cent believed that it benefited all people, and others could not express their views on this. It is important to note that a large number of voters who questioned the economic policies of the then government voted against the NDA. There was a significant shift among middle-class voters from the BJP to the Cong
ress, which among other factors contributed significantly to the BJP’s defeat in 2004. The negative evaluation of the economic policies of the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the people’s unhappiness with rising prices resulted in the massive defeat of the Congress in 2014.
The Congress has mounted an offensive against the BJP, targeting the government over its failures on the economic front. Parallels are being drawn between 2004 and 2019, and arguments are being put forward that if a leaderless Congress could defeat the NDA in 2004, why can’t this be repeated 15 years later, in 2019? The task for the Congress may not be impossible, but remains extremely difficult, with the party having lost the ability to attract regional parties as allies. It is now the other way around it is the Congress that needs the regional parties much more than vice versa. The question, however, remains: is the Congress ready for this climbdown?
The writer is a profesor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal...