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How Congress votes have shifted to dominant regional parties

The Congress may have, at one time or the other, ruled 18 of the current 28 states in the union when Indira Gandhi was the PM, but over the past two decades, its performance has dipped.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020 20:44 IST

By Saubhadra Chatterji, Hindustan Times New Delhi

Cutouts of Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, leader Rahul Gandhi, and General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (ANI file photo)

The last time Bihar had a Congress chief minister was 1990, the year Indian pacers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami were born.

India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, saw the exit of its most recent Congress CM, Narayan Datt Tiwari in 1989.

In West Bengal, the third-largest electoral state after UP and Maharashtra, the waiting list for the Congress is even longer. The party has not had a chief minister since the Emergency ended in 1977. Sure, the party tasted power briefly in Bengal for one-and-a-half years in alliance with the Trinamool Congress in 2011 but the partnership collapsed when the Trinamool withdrew support from the UPA government at the Centre.

Tamil Nadu, which oscillates between the two regional giants, the AIADMK and the DMK, last saw a Congress CM when it was still called Madras State and yet to be renamed as Tamil Nadu. The term of Minjur Bhaktavatsalam, the last Congress CM, ended in 1967, two years before Madras State became Tamil Nadu.



The Congress may have, at one time or the other, ruled 18 of the current 28 states in the union when Indira Gandhi was the PM, but over the past two decades, its performance has dipped. In contrast, the BJP, which has, at one time or the other, ruled 9 of the 28, has seen its performance improve in the past 5 years.

Also read | BJP, Congress to gain big as 51 Rajya Sabha MPs are set to retire in April

Sanjay Kumar of CSDS said,“The Congress used to be the umbrella party of OBC, Dalit and Muslim voters for a long time. Now, regional parties have strong support base of these sections and the Muslims have shifted towards the dominant regional party like the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) realising they have potential to take on the BJP. To my own sense, the Congress has two options: it must continue to fight in these states alone to revive in the long run. Or, it may keep forming alliances with the dominant party in state. It must not focus on all seats but focus on increasing the winnability factor.”

One trend that is becoming evident is that Indian polity has undergone a fundamental transformation – from the Congress at pole position to strong, regional satraps in key states (especially in the post-Mandal era; and most of these grew at the expense of the Congress) who existed along with the Congress, to strong regional satraps that now co-exist with the BJP. From West Bengal to Odisha, UP to Bihar, and Telangana to, most recently, Delhi, it is becoming clear that if there’s a strong regional force to take on the BJP, the Congress gets reduced to a poor third.

Senior Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi said, “There is no denying that in some states the regional parties have gained a strong foothold at the expense of the Congress. In the long term perspective, we have to adopt ekla chalo re (go by yourself) policy in these states for at least 5 years. But our mid-term interests say exactly the opposite. So frankly, I am yet to find a solution to this problem.”

In Delhi, where the party ruled for three consecutive terms with Sheila Dikshit as the chief minister, it has scored a unique double zero in consecutive elections in 2015 and 2020. With the meteoric rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party, the Congress has seen a dramatic decline in the capital city. Its vote in the recently-concluded election was lowest ever at 4.26%.

Delhi, once a Congress versus BJP battleground, is now an AAP versus BJP phenomenon.

In some ways, this is a repeat of Odisha -- the main players are now Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and the BJP – or Uttar Pradesh – the BJP in pole position and the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – or even West Bengal (the BJP and Trinamool).

“There many factors for the fall of Congress regional outfits vis-à-vis the regional players. Since 1990s, major transformative changes occurred in India such as assertion of Dalit politics, the emergence of the right wingers and liberalisation of the economy. These factors have resulted in changes in both caste and class term and rise of local parties,” said economist Prasenjit Bose.

Bose also draws a difference between the regional parties in south India and north India. “While southern parties mostly come with specific regional agenda, northern parties strive for a larger role in national politics.”

In UP, the Congress tally has reduced from 309 in 1980 (a year after the Mandal Commission was formed) to just 7 in the 2017 assembly polls. Similarly, in states such as Odisha and Gujarat, the Congress has not been in power for 20 years and 24 years, respectively. Between 1961 and 1970, at its peak, the party had 49.2 % legislators across India in state assemblies; today just 21% of MLAs belong to the Congress.

Still, the Congress may have no choice but to continue with its current approach of allying with local partners.

Party insiders believe that the Congress’s national ambitions hinge on its performance in four states—UP, Bihar , West Bengal and Tamil Nadu—which together send 201 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In both 2004 and 2009, the Congress had strong allies in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while improving its tally in UP.

A party veteran who did not want to be named said, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has adopted the approach of allying with strong regional outfits and consolidating the party’s base in other states. “This model will continue for the Congress in the coming days while the party will try to revive its fortune in states dominated by regional parties,” he added.

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