If the Congress party can so easily join forces with the JD(S) even before full election results were announced in Karnataka—why didn’t it do so before the elections?
The answer to this question lies in Congress’s desperation for an exclusive victory and its big-brotherly attitude toward regional parties. The Congress has not beaten the BJP in any one-to-one contest ever since its humiliating defeat in 2014. The BJP has, meanwhile, called for a ‘Congress mukt bharat’. The grand old party wants to prove BJP wrong by defeating it by itself and when several pre-poll surveys confirmed Siddaramaiah’s popularity in Karnataka, his party seems to have concluded a victory foretold.
Siddaramaiah has no doubt kept the AHINDA social coalition intact, implemented several welfare schemes for Dalits, the poor, women and minorities and invoked regional sentiments. BJP in the state was meanwhile signaling factionalism within its ranks. These factors evidently made the Congress overconfident, for, it is Karnataka more than any other state where it had the best chance to pull off a victory. As this would have changed the national narrative in its favor, the party didn’t take an alliance route.
A combined victory would have meant sharing credit with an alliance partner—the Congres formula was to enjoy credit exclusively. If they had succeeded, they would have sent a clear message of national revival. Adding desperation in the Congress ranks was Rahul Gandhi’s becoming party president. Until now undermined, questioned and mocked, he needs a victory under his own command. Siddaramaiah, thus, remained the face of his party but it is Rahul who plunged into the battleground. His aggressive election campaign often directly challenged Modi and he projected himself as a PM candidate—all under the assumption that his party is poised to win.
In this optimism Congress saw an opportunity to make over the image of Rahul Gandhi, to show him as the person to lead the opposition nationally against BJP. Sharing victory with JD(S) would have undermined Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and become a hurdle in this makeover. Remember, the Congress has always been very conscious of Rahul’s image. His swearing in as party president was during the Gujarat assembly elections. After ascending to the post he made substantial changes, appointing new faces and attempting to infuse young blood in a decaying organization. He signaled revival of the Congress in states where it has become mostly irrelevant.
Now, it is all too evident that Rahul’s idea of a Congress revival rests less on stitching together an alliance and more on proving his own party’s salience in state elections. Stuck without a victory under his belt—Congress has only got 78 seats in Karnataka—his command over his own party is a possible question to arise in future.
Not just JD(S), it is possible to say that until the Karnataka results, Congress seemed unwilling to keep an open mind for alliances with many other regional parties too. It refused to join the SP-BSP combine in the bypolls of Phulpur and Gorakhpur in UP, for example. Instead it demanded one of the two seats Congress had lost miserably in 2014. At SP’s refusal, Congress decided to go it alone. In this misadventure Congress candidates lost their deposits.
The same attitude persists as we approach the bypoll in Kairana. Only at the last moment did the Congress decide not to field its own candidate. However, it has not directed its leaders on the ground to throw their weight behind the combined opposition candidate. Hence, Congress appears to be undermining regional parties and displaying unpreparedness for alliances.
Above all, Congress appears not to have fully grasped the formidable challenge Narendra Modi as PM (and campaigner for the BJP) poses to its survival. After improving its performance in Gujarat Congress appears to have developed an illusion that it can beat the BJP alone, if not everywhere then in states where it still retains strongholds. Karnataka is one such stronghold—and this undoubtedly played on the leadership’s minds when they failed to enter a pre-poll alliance.
Lessons for the Congress
Karnataka’s message is loud and clear: Congress alone cannot defeat the BJP, not even in states where it has a strong presence. To defeat the BJP the party must shed its overconfidence and the mantle of big brother. Despite being a national party it will need to join hands, before elections, with regional parties—even much smaller ones. This applies to all upcoming elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In MP and Rajasthan, despite favorable conditions, there is a need for opposition unity. BSP and the left parties have followers in Rajasthan. To challenge BJP, Rahul needs to bring them on board. He will need to support non-BJP opposition parties and prepare to share seats with an open mind.
(Vijendra Singh teaches political science at Central University of Gujarat.)