In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress had a historic, humiliating defeat. It was the first time it didn’t win triple digits in the Lok Sabha. The 44 seat-tally couldn’t even get it the post of the Leader of Opposition in the House of the people.
Yet, Congress members and leaders consoled themselves by saying this was an aberration. The party’s chief data analyst propounded the “black swan” theory.
The party expected to win around 100-150 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. This would have shown incremental progress, making the Congress’ return to power in the 2024 Lok Sabha election look like a matter of course. The line of thinking was that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power for 10 years, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would similarly get two terms, and the pendulum would swing back.
This theory had some backing in the Congress party’s state election victories in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Puducherry. In Modi’s home state Gujarat, it gave the BJP a tough time returning to power. In Karnataka, it managed to keep the BJP out of power till at least the Lok Sabha election. The state elections suggested that the idea of a dominant, single-party Modi era could be a tad bit exaggerated.
Alas, history doesn’t owe it to anyone to be so linear. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress stood more or less where it did in 2014, with 52 seats, still not enough for the Leader of the Opposition post. Its vote share remained rather strong and stable, increasing from 19.5 per cent in 2014 to 21 per cent in 2019. The Modi-led BJP crossed the psychological barrier of 300 seats, increasing its tally from 282 to 303, and we’re not even counting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies yet.
A great new churning
The 2019 Lok Sabha election has led to a great new churning in Indian politics. This churning has only just begun, but begun it has.
This churning has absolutely nothing to do with the BJP. It is a churning within the opposition. It is a conversation that non-BJP voters are having among themselves. Is it time to look beyond the Congress? If yes, what are our options?
In state after state election, voters are asking themselves this question. The result is not just that regional parties are asserting themselves and finding greater traction among voters, but also that new parties and formations are coming up.
Since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, opposition leaders who’ve managed to distinguish themselves in electoral and political battles include Hemant Soren, Dushyant Chautala, Arvind Kejriwal, Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, Asaduddin Owaisi, and even Tejashwi Yadav. What’s common in these names is that none of them belong to the Congress.
Kejriwal tries again
The significance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) opening its account in Gujarat through municipal elections cannot be overstated. Having failed in its strategy to win one state at a time, the AAP has decided to contest as many elections as it can, going all-in. In the next 2-3 years, the AAP could well return to its old levels of noise and national attention-grabbing tendencies.
As Gujarat shows us, the AAP’s purpose is to try and replace the Congress where it is weak. If you have been a Congress voter in Gujarat, you haven’t seen your party in power since the 1980s. It is easy to make you try another party. Arvind Kejriwal is second only to Hindutva icon Yogi Adityanath in all-India popularity ratings measured by India Today’s bi-annual national survey. Using the (true or false) hype around Kejriwal’s success in Delhi, the AAP is going to make a Himalayan attempt to replace the Congress as the main national opposition force.
The AAP may not succeed very much in the short run. It may not win a single assembly election beyond Delhi. In Punjab, the Congress has swept urban municipal polls. If the AAP loses Punjab again, its national expansion plans may not see overnight success of the kind it saw in Delhi.
Owaisi pulls away Muslim votes
But the churn isn’t happening on account of the AAP’s efforts alone. Arguably, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)’s meagre victories here and there are one of the most significant elements of this churn. Much of the Congress party’s solid vote share despite low seats comes from Muslim voters. The Congress takes Muslim voters for granted, and the AAP wants to (foolishly) position itself as a centre-Right party. The very significant Muslim vote is thus up for grabs. The Muslim vote shifted away from the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the ’90s, and it now threatens to do so throughout the Hindi heartland. Asaduddin Owaisi is being kind to the Congress by contesting only a handful of seats in every state. He fights to win. If he decides to actually play the ‘vote-cutter’, which the Congress accuses him of being, the Congress will start losing even its respectable vote shares in many states.
We saw this most starkly in Bihar, where the Congress party’s low voice against CAA-NRC-NPR cost it Muslim-dominated seats to the benefit of AIMIM. Now, the AIMIM has marked an entry in Gujarat.
Vacuum will create many new forces
The AAP and the AIMIM are only two signs of the great new churn. There are more: From the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) in Haryana to the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal in Assam. In Telangana, as the BJP moves in to replace the Congress, Jagan Mohan Reddy’s sister Sharmila has announced her own party. If the Left wins Kerala, the Trinamool wins Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) wins Tamil Nadu, we will see an even greater assertion of regional parties in the national opposition space, at the cost of the Congress.
Whether it is CAA or the farm laws, the people today protest on their own, unable to use the opposition parties to fight on their behalf. Such is the vacuum today in the opposition space that young activists have to fight and go to jail for sedition because the opposition parties are too weak to perform their job of acting as a check and balance to the excesses of the executive.
This means that there will be more such Congress-replacement efforts in the next 2-3 years, in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. These efforts may come from forces that are not even in politics right now, forces that we may not even know of today. Since the political vacuum the Congress has created is visible to everyone, we could have something akin to a Lokpal movement, or a V.P. Singh may emerge, perhaps a Jayaprakash Narayan. In Modi’s first term, the emergence of new political formations was halted by the thought that the Congress party’s 44 seats could be an aberration. Now, as the Congress crisis seems so long-term that Rahul Gandhi can’t even be party president while acting like one, the public increasingly wants to give new political experiments the green light.
The deciding factor
None of this means that the Congress will be a walkover. A 125-year-old party doesn’t just down its shutters one fine day. What it means is that the 2019-24 period is one where the Congress will fight for survival.
Modi’s first term was the period when the Titanic called the Congress was hit by an iceberg. In Modi’s second term, the Congress Titanic is trying not to sink. From Kerala to Karnataka, from Punjab to Assam, the party will do all it can to keep the hope alive for itself.
The next few years will thus see increased political competition within the opposition space. In the short run, by which we mean until 2024, it won’t result in any broad change in the BJP’s dominance. If anything, it will only help divide opposition votes and give easy victories to the BJP. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the BJP is very keen to see multiple opposition parties divide the opposition vote. The same will happen nationally too.
It is only after the 2024 Lok Sabha election that a clearer picture will begin to emerge. Whether the picture is one of a post-Congress era or a coalition era of some sort or a magical revival of the Congress — we shall know only after 2024.
The deciding factor will be the 2024 Lok Sabha election itself. The great churn we have begun to see in Indian politics will mean that there will be multiple efforts at giving voters a national narrative. Which of these narratives, faces and formations click with voters, we shall know with the vote shares, seats and mind space that the 2024 election bestows upon these opposition forces.
2024 is likely to be a boring election in the sense that the BJP, most people would agree, is likely to see an easy third term. However, 2024 will be a landmark election in deciding the future course of opposition politics in India.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.