As improbable as it might sound, the Congress is in the same unenviable position as its far more powerful rival the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is now becoming as much of an ‘untouchable’ for its allies as the Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP. However, the reason is different. For the Congress, the disenchantment among its allies has come without its ability to win elections on its own. For the BJP, it’s the exact opposite — allies are drifting because a powerful electoral run has meant that the party is more arrogant and often adopts a bulldozer-ish approach.
Bihar is the perfect pitch to explain this trend. The BJP seems to have eaten up its ally Nitish Kumar’s position in the state, doing much better than the Janata Dal (United) by winning 74 seats as against the latter’s 43. Tying up with an ambitious BJP under Modi-Shah — whether for JD(U) or Shiv Sena or the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — essentially means running the risk of ending their own presence in their respective states.
For the Congress, however, Bihar has been another story altogether. A resurgent Tejashwi Yadav was brutally dragged down by a sinking Congress that managed to win just 19 of the 70 seats it contested.
Bihar is just an example that showcases what exactly the two big national parties are bringing to the table for their smaller, regional allies. While one is causing them more immediate damage, the other is responsible for their long-term erosion, even if it brings them to power today.
Congress — the liability
Bihar is hardly an aberration for the Congress. From completely burying the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, to its questionable contribution to allies like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, the Congress’ track record has, to put it more generously, been patchy. Its strike rate is often low, and if the alliance does manage to do well — like in Bihar and Maharashtra, it is largely because of the regional ally.
After the Bihar debacle and Congress’ drubbing in the UP bypoll, and perhaps having learnt from the big blunder of 2017, the Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav was quick to say he will fight the 2022 assembly election solo.
Akhilesh isn’t likely to be the only one. Why would anybody want to touch the Congress even with a barge pole when its ability to do electorally well, today, is under serious question? The Congress no longer wins elections by virtue of being the Congress, it does well either because of strong state leaders who command a following, or because of allies.
Look at the last few elections in which the party has done well — Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were won riding on well-entrenched state leaders, often a combination of more than one of them. The party did well in Haryana thanks to the Hoodas. In Maharashtra, the coming together of Shiv Sena and NCP enabled it.
What better example than Madhya Pradesh to show how fragile Congress’ victories today are. One strong state leader quits and the party comes crumbling down. Its plummeting performance at the national level is an apt reflection of how the grand old party has lost its grand old ability to collect votes in its name.
It is more speculative than absolute to say whether the Congress allies would have done better had they not joined hands with it. But there is enough data by now to show how the Congress just piggybacks on its stronger regional allies and, often, lets them down. ThePrint’s Fatima Khan has crunched some data that reflects this paradigm.
Essentially, the Congress has lost the ability to win elections on its merit, or riding on the popularity of its central leadership, calling which a political letdown would be a euphemism. Why then would allies feel attracted to it? The states where it does well are about regional leaders who anyway will not cede space to allies. In others, in the asset versus liability chart, the party adds far more to the latter section.
The BJP analogy
There is very little that is common between the Congress and the BJP today, given the former’s relentless political slide and the latter’s spectacular electoral rise.
An inevitable ally aversion, however, seems to bind the two together. The BJP pretty much kills its regional allies, sidelining them and becoming the dominant party in the state. Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, JD(U) in Bihar and AGP in Assam have all suffered the same fate. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, from being the regional power, reached a situation where the BJP had become the ‘big brother’, contesting more seats.
Allying with the BJP is a double-edged sword. Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP might carry the ability to catapult an alliance to power, but under the duo, it is equally capable of destroying allies, belittling them and treating them shoddily.
The Shiromani Akali Dal’s exit from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after 22 years — because of its objection to the three farm legislation — was the latest in a long list of examples of how allies feel short-changed by the BJP.
High on the heavy concoction of their electoral success and powerful national presence, Modi and Shah have little regard for the allies, either electorally or politically. They may have given Nitish Kumar the CM’s chair in Bihar despite his underwhelming performance, but how long before they decide to pull the rug from under his feet?
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is up to its old trick of trying to polarise Hindu votes through the Vel Yatra, even if it comes at the cost of its ally the AIADMK. The latter, however, has hardly taken to it kindly and has fought back against its partner’s attempts.
Sooner or later, regional parties will want to keep the BJP at a safe distance, for their own political survival. Just as they would want to keep the Congress at bay for their electoral survival. While its own disastrous electoral run makes the situation much worse for the Congress, both the key national parties have a lot of self-reflection to do about the ally-aversion they are causing, and the harm it can do to them in the long run.
Views are personal.