The Congress party has swung in full campaign mode for the 2019 general elections with its promise of income support of Rs 72,000 per annum to the poorest 20 per cent families under the Nyuntam Aay Yojana. With this move, the party expects to undercut the BJP’s potential gains from the Rs 6,000 annual cash transfer to small farmers and shift the election discourse away from national security and terrorism.
Many observers say that if the Congress manages to reach out to the voters with feel-good messages about this plan, it could be a game changer for the party.
While empirical evidence on the electoral impact of making such announcements a few weeks prior to polling is rather scant, the Congress sympathisers cite the example of their party’s promise in the Chhattisgarh assembly election last year. Reports suggest that farmers in the state delayed selling their paddy in expectation of the Congress party increasing the price of paddy if voted in power.
Notwithstanding this announcement, what are the realistic chances of the Congress party in the 2019 elections? The opinion on this is extremely divided. Some believe that the Congress party has given up its hope on the 2019 elections and is instead preparing for the 2024 general elections.
Political commentators have argued that the Congress party does not seem eager to make alliances and has been making unreasonable demands on the regional parties in many states.
Others argue that the BJP is likely to suffer losses in the Hindi heartland and the Congress is likely to be its principal beneficiary.
This argument has been further buttressed by looking at the results of the 2014 elections, when the Congress won 44 seats and stood second on 224 others. The commentators claim that since many of these second-position seats were in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Haryana (three of which it now rules), the Congress would be a direct beneficiary of any discontent against the Modi government.
And yet, the optimism around the Congress’s fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is not borne out by the data. On the contrary, a disaggregated analysis of the 2014 verdict and recent trends on these seats reveal that the scope for gain for the Congress party is rather limited for three reasons.
First, the Congress revival in this election is difficult due to its extremely low base. In 2014, the party’s seat tally and vote share were abysmally low, and two of every five Congress candidates had lost their security deposit (i.e. polled less than one-sixth of the total votes cast). The party may not only find it extremely difficult to cross 100 seats but may also slide further down in some states.
There is no doubt that the Congress can win a fraction of 224 seats where it had stood second, but one can also not deny the possibility of the party losing seats it had won by a narrow margin. In 2014, the Congress had won 20 of its 44 seats with a margin of less than five percentage points.
Second, the gap between the Congress and its nearest rival in 128 of the 224seats it stood second on was more than 15 percentage points. In most of these seats, the BJP and the Congress are in a direct contest. While the Congress may improve its tally by adding a few more seats, a dramatic change in the party’s fortunes is unlikely. The BJP had a substantial lead over the Congress in many of these seats. The victory margin of the BJP on 82 of these seats was more than 20 percentage points.
Unless there is a massive swing against the BJP, the Congress is unlikely to make serious gains in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where it won the assembly elections in December 2018. However, Congress could certainly hurt the BJP in Chhattisgarh.
Third, and more importantly, a worrying sign for the Congress is that in a few states like Odisha, Tripura, and Nagaland, the party is unlikely to be the principal opposition party and may relegate to third-position. Unlike Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress could bounce back after being in the opposition for fifteen years, these states are multi-polar. Hence, the Congress would no longer be the only viable opposition.
Does this mean that the Congress has done nothing to challenge Modi in 2019?
While it is true that the party has not gone out of its way to seal alliances, the party does have strong pre-election coalitions in many states such as Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. It is hoping for a revival in Uttar Pradesh by bringing in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to campaign and nominating some strong candidates.
Furthermore, the party has made conscious effort to shift the election narrative from just national security to issues of unemployment, agrarian crisis, and corruption.
But the tragedy of the Congress’ campaign is that none of its charges against the Modi government are getting the kind of traction the party would have expected.
There are no easy solutions to the Congress’ internal dilemma of prioritising between its twin objectives – the ouster of the BJP government or (and) arresting its electoral decline. Much like in the game of cricket, when a Virender Sehwag or Chris Gayle are in their top form, they give even the best bowlers a run for their money. Even a mis-hit somehow reaches the boundary and then yorkers get a treatment of a bad full toss.
Similarly, there are moments in political time when the opposition seems to get nothing right. That does not mean the Congress party is unaware of the ground realities and is not doing anything right. Recall the 1971 elections: the opposition had stitched a nation-wide grand alliance against Indira Gandhi, yet she emerged victorious with even a bigger mandate.
It is very much possible that the Congress could end up losing on both fronts by chasing the twin objectives simultaneously. A single-minded pursuit of defeating the Modi government at any cost may go well with Modi-baiters, but that may not necessarily arrest the electoral slide of the Congress. The party has chosen a high-risk, high-reward strategy — it may fall flat, but it can also bring windfall gains.
Rahul Verma is Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Pranav Gupta is a PhD student in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, US.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments