How To Get It Wrong

There are reasons for the Congress debacle. There are lessons too.
How To Get It Wrong
Illustrations by Hadimani
How To Get It Wrong

Analyses of Indian elections remind me of Mughal samrajya ke patan ke karan, a popular essay in my school and college days. Our analysis of the decline of the Mughal empire used to be
a long list. The longer the list, the higher the marks it was awarded, went school lore. Everything associated with the phenomenon, we explained in detail: the empire’s size, its political strategy, the state of its finances, the emperor’s character, the army, its ammunition, the rains during the battle and, not to forget, the mad elephants. The length of the essay expanded as I graduated from school to college and then to university, but the theme and the approach did not.

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The emphatic verdict delivered by the state assembly elections has spawned a similar reaction. The Congress is the clear loser. Therefore, everything to do with the Congress must be the cause of its coming a cropper: party organisation or the lack of it, its ideology (or the lack of it), its attitude towards regional leaders, its factionalism, the selection of candidates, the projection or non-projection of chief ministerial candidates and, yes, the dynasty. When the Congress wins a round next, the same factors could turn into its strengths. Just as everything that the victors did in this round are the reasons for their success.

Mughal samrajya ke patan ke karan.

Rahul Gandhi spared no effort. But his party had no cadre, loyal community or viable CM candidate.

But, when one looks at the GOP’s penchant for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, it does seem as though the Congress can do no right. This round of assembly elections offered a real chance to the Congress to reverse the sharp erosion in popular legitimacy following such recent tremors as the conveyor belt of scams and Anna’s agitation as also long-standing perceptions of policy freeze and political paralysis. This opportunity had come about thanks to a fortuitous wheeling of the electoral cycle. It was the Congress’s turn to rule in Punjab and Uttarakhand; the 2009 Lok Sabha polls in both states appeared to portend the inevitable defeat of the non-Congress regimes. Goa and Manipur, though, do not follow the logic of oscillation and, prior to the polls, the incumbent Congress units were thought to be primed to retain power.

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The biggest opportunity—and test—for the Congress was always going to be Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress could have benefited from a longer electoral cycle and presented itself as a viable long-term alternative to the major parties. Its stunning success in the Lok Sabha election had paved the way for the Congress’s recovery in the state that matters most in the national political calculus. It was hard to foresee such an opportune coincidence of electoral cycles in the states that happened to be bundled together presenting itself to the UPA in the near future.

The Congress debacle on Tuesday should, then, be viewed in this wider context. Taken in and of themselves, each loss can be explained and understood. Revival in Uttar Pradesh was going to be an uphill task, even in the best of times. Of late, an election in Punjab had become something of a close call and the Akalis were a tough opponent to take on. B.C. Khanduri’s arrival in Uttarakhand had made a match of a one-sided contest. And the idea that a corrupt, nepotist Congress regime in Goa would be voted back was both incredulous and laughable. But if one reads the verdicts as a collective, the indictment handed by the janata to the Congress tots up another missed opportunity—when the party could least afford it.

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Illustrations by Hadimani

The story of how Congress managed to drop the ball—again—needs to be examined with some care. We are not looking at electoral tsunamis—aberrations that need no specific explanation. Because the difference in popular votes between the two leading contenders was negligible everywhere, except in Manipur, each story needs to be understood as a net outcome of the balance of forces that favoured different parties.

The return of the Badal government in Punjab is not a case of good governance and development being rewarded by the voters. The incumbents had achieved the rare distinction of having outmatched the Congress in the scale and brazenness of corruption that hurt ordinary people. The revolt by Manpreet Badal was no ordinary factional dispute; it reflected deep-seated resistance to Sukhbir Badal’s ascension. Traditional Akali voters were unwilling to accept the brash, high-handed ways of the deputy CM. True, following their defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Akalis were desperate to make amends—attempting to court Dalits and the poor through imaginative and effective welfare measures. Still, their victory was far from a forgone conclusion. The eventual margin of just two percentage points suggests that a more involved central leadership or a less complacent Maharaja could’ve tripped the Akalis.

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In Uttarakhand, too, the Congress could have ensured themselves a clear victory. The record of the Nishank regime and the internecine warfare within the BJP had made a recovery by Khanduri virtually impossible. Besides, the withering away of the UKD and the gradual marginalisation of the BSP and the SP in the state had created cleavages of opportunity for the Congress. Its failure to occupy these spaces points not just to a short-term strategic failure, but also the long-term failure to connect to a cross-section of population that is beginning to be disenchanted with the promise of the new state.

In Goa, however, the problem was not simple short-term strategic miscalculation. The Congress high command had turned a blind eye to the reign of the rapacious ‘five families’—all with connections to the despised mining mafia—and its cynical defiance of all public norms and sensibilities. It could not have hoped to come up tops against an opponent with a clean image and, more importantly, more willing than before to respect the religious diversity within the state.

The unprecedentedly clear majority for the Congress in Manipur is less of a consolation prize for the party than its leadership might imagine. For one thing, this is a personal victory for Ibobi Singh, the two-term chief minister, rather than for the Congress. Worse, the verdict has been achieved on ethnic polarisation and manipulation and side-steps the government’s atrocious record on development and probity.

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Akhilesh Yadav may have added just that extra gloss needed to forget memories of the SP’s ‘goonda’ raj.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress’s problem lay not in short-term strategy or its much-heralded campaign. The Congress had injected its vast resources, large pool of leaders, the smaller pool of workers and grizzled political wisdom into this campaign. Rahul Gandhi had spared no effort though he had entered the fray somewhat late in the day. The party’s candidate selection, electoral plank and organisation strategy was none too bad either. All this gave rise to the impression (my own piece in Outlook, The More They (Don’t) Remain The Same, dated February 27, 2012, shared this misreading) that the Congress could look to repeat its Lok Sabha success in the assembly polls. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it is easier to see that a party without a cadre, not one loyal community nor a recognised face at the state level to call its own could not compete with more grounded parties like the BSP and the SP. The footfalls trodden by the Congress may yet not go waste come the Lok Sabha election, but would require more sustained legwork.

The operative factor in this election was the desire of the small, but crucial, floating voter to oust the incumbent BSP government. There was a tinge of upper-caste resentment against a Dalit regime, but on balance, it was a citizens’ protest against a government that was widely perceived to be corrupt, self-indulgent, inaccessible and whimsical. The first truly Dalit government of independent India contributed to a sense of dignity among the Dalits, but did not deliver to them tangible benefits of government or development. Nor could it use state power to consolidate a wider coalition of the poor and marginalised. The Samajwadi Party was the principal beneficiary of this public sentiment, largely because it was around, was a viable alternative, was active as an opposition party and was proximate to the people. Amar Singh’s exit, Azam Khan’s entry, the distancing from D.P. Yadav and the presence of Akhilesh Yadav may have added just that extra gloss needed to forget old memories of the corrupt and lawless regime and enable the suspension of disbelief necessary to entice votes. Neither of the two national parties represented a real alternative.

(Yogendra Yadav is senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)

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