Sunday, 9 November 2014

Game up for Congress?

The thing about eras is that their passing away usually goes unnoticed, either because people have long since given up even caring or, as is more likely, very few realise it until much later. In the context of Indian politics, I suspect we are witnessing the end of an era. The outcome of the recently concluded Maharashtra state elections could signal the beginning of the end for the Indian National Congress. Baring a dramatic turnaround, the once great party is now in its last legs.

The statement may sound premature, even an overreaction. After all, anti-incumbency is inevitable after a long period in power. There have been occasions in the past when the Congress got voted out, but soon bounced back to power. Why should one assume that its going to be any different this time around? Simple: the numbers.

Until the recent concluded national elections, the Congress even at its lowest ebb never held less than 114 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even in 1977, 1989 and 1996- the three previous occasions on which the party lost power after national elections, their seat tally in the 543 member Lok Sabha was 153, 197 and 137 respectively- pretty presentable numbers, far superior to their pathetic 44 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Image Source: Frontline

Then came the double whammy of last month: losses in Maharashtra and Haryana to a party which had not a single prominent leader in Haryana and was virtually non existent in Maharashtra outside of Vidharbha (see image above).

Its impossible to overstate or exaggerate the significance of losing Maharashtra. That state was always a Congress bastion. Even in the mid to late 90s, when it seemed that the party was a dying force in Indian politics, it remained a force to reckon with in the state.  In the 67 years since independence, Maharashtra and its predecessor, Bombay State, have been governed uninterrupted by the Congress, save 19 months between 1978 and 1980 and 4 years in the late 90s. The 26/11 attacks, droughts in Maharashtra and hundreds of farmer suicides notwithstanding, Congress still held on to Maharashtra. That bastion is now gone.

Even anti-incumbency cannot explain the magnitude of the party's recent electoral disasters. Sample this: 24/ 200 in Rajasthan, 8/70 in Delhi, 21/119 in Telangana and the crowning glory: 0/175 in Andhra Pradesh. Comparitively, 42/ 288 in Maharashtra and 58/230 in Madhya Pradesh almost look like victories. What's common to all those states? Two things: elections to all those states were held over the last 12 months and the Congress was the incumbent party in all those states (except Madhya Pradesh) until a year ago. In every single election, the 'grand old' party was not just defeated, it was wiped out.

Out of the 7 electorally biggest states (which account for 291 out of the 543 Lok Sabha members) the party has recently lost power in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh + Telangana. They have been out of power in Uttar Pradesh since 1989, in Bihar since  1990, in West Bengal since 1977 and in Tamil Nadu since 1967. Except Karnataka, the Congress is out of power in every other major state (see Map below).

Political Map of India by Ruling Party
Image Source: Wikipedia

Its hard to see the party ever coming back now. The current leadership of the party is bereft of ideas, inspiration and dare one say it, even commitment. It does not help that the vice-like grip on power exercised by the party's first family has effectively ensured that there is no leader of stature within the Congress capable of replacing the Gandhis, which means the party's dependence on its first family is even greater in this hour of crisis. Paradoxically, that once fabled name is also party's biggest liability.

The only way back for the Congress is a change in leadership, which is virtually impossible unless the Gandhis voluntarily step down. In the highly unlikely event that they do take the backseat (without installing puppets), its doubtful whether the new leaders will enjoy popular support within the party rank and file, let alone the voters. Given all those factors, the road back (insofar as there is one) is going to be a long and difficult one, assuming some other party does not fill in the vacuum created by the Congress' rapid decline.

The odds are stacked against the Congress. Whisper it if you may, but we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Congress.

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