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To be relevant in 2019, Congress must rewind to 1996-2004

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Congress should try to get back to its 135 seat share in 1996-2004 rather than aim for the 206 of 2009.

New Delhi: If there is one question which will matter the most in government formation after the 2019 elections, it is how much the Congress can improve its 2014 tally of 44 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress’s gains will eat into the BJP’s seat-tally, and a healthy Congress performance will lead to non-BJP parties gravitating towards it to form a coalition government in case of a hung parliament.

It is still early days to make seat predictions (if at all they should be made) for 2019. Many factors including the performance of the monsoon (given its impact on farm incomes) will influence how anti-incumbency against the BJP shapes up. Pre-poll alliances in the run-up to 2019 can drastically change seat shares without any significant change in vote shares of parties.

However, a state-wise analysis of the Congress’ performance in all Lok Sabha elections since 1996 can give some insights into this question; 1996 is a structural break in the Congress’s history because it had to face elections without a politically experienced member of the Gandhi family for the first time. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in the middle of campaigning for the 1991 elections. Sonia Gandhi first contested elections in 1999, while Rahul Gandhi made his political debut in the 2004 elections.

Although the Congress formed the first United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, its performance in terms of seats was not very different from that in the previous three elections. The Congress had 140, 141, 114 and 146 seats in the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004 elections. Its seat tally jumped significantly to 206 in 2009 and crashed to an all time low of 44 in the 2014 polls. The period from 1996-2004 represents some sort of a normal for the Congress, while both 2009 and 2014 are outliers.

HT has looked at state-wise average of seats won by the Congress in 1996-2004 elections and compared them with the party’s 2009 and 2014 performance. For the sake of comparison we have clubbed Bihar and Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the post-2004 period.

59 out of the 206 seats which the Congress won in 2009 came from the states of Andhra Pradesh and undivided Uttar Pradesh. This came down to 4 in the 2014 polls. However, the 2009 performance was a big jump over the average performance in these two states during 1996-2004. Hence, it is extremely unlikely that the party can replicate its 2009 performance in these states. Even to repeat its 1996-2004 performance in both these states the Congress will have to bargain for as many seats as possible while remaining in a pre-poll alliance.

The political climate in both states has changed. Andhra is now divided into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – in the former, Congress is still seen as having divided the state and in the latter, the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi remains a formidable player in power, monopolising the credit for the formation of the state. Together, they send 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In UP, even as the BJP has consolidated with sweeping victories in both 2014 and 2017, the opposition space is now captured by the Samajwadi Party-Bhaujan Samaj Party Alliance; whether Congress will be a part of this alliance, and on what terms, is unclear. But what is certain is that it will not be able to replicate its 2009 performance.

Another major setback the Congress suffered in the 2014 polls was in states where it has had a bipolar contest with the BJP. The Congress won just 3 seats in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, undivided Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in 2014. This number was 33 and 45 for 1996-2004 and 2009. Given the fact that the Congress improved its seat tally in Gujarat assembly elections and has performed well in by-polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it could make significant gains at the cost of the BJP in this region. Still, even replicating the 1996-2004 performance will mean a gain of 30 seats for the Congress.

Hindustan Times

To be sure, the Congress also performed badly in other parts of the country in the 2014 elections. Its biggest losses between 2009 and 2014 were in Maharashtra; the northern states of Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana; and Delhi, Goa and other union territories.

With the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party burying their differences and rising bitterness between the BJP and Shiv Sena, the Congress can hope to improve its tally in Maharashtra. Alliances in Jammu and Kashmir and Haryana could also help it in improving its performance in the northern belt. The Congress has performed well in Punjab in the previous assembly elections as well as by-polls. There is good reason to be sceptical about a Congress revival in Delhi, where it won all 7 seats in 2009 but was destroyed by the emergence of Aam Admi Party in the post-2012 phase.

Also, the party might suffer further reverses in the North-East, where the BJP has made significant gains and even West Bengal, where it seem to be divided between allying with the Left and the Trinamool Congress. Whether or not these losses will be compensated by gains in undivided Bihar (where Congress will most likely have pre-poll alliances) and Odisha is an important question. As far as the three southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are concerned, the Congress’s 2014 performance (17 seats) was not very different from its average performance during 1996-2004. So, it will be difficult for the party to increase its seat tally from these states in a big way.

As of now, a more realistic plan for the Congress will be to focus on getting back to its 1996-2004 performance of 135.3 seats rather than make ambitious plans with 2009 in mind. The Congress crossed the 140 mark in all elections during 1996-2004 except in 1999, which marked the first time the BJP came to power and stayed for a full term.

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