By Swapan Dasgupta
Putting up a brave front in the face of adversity is an understandable feature of competitive politics—and all parties have taken recourse to it at one time or another. However, a stiff upper lip, while playing a role in bolstering the spirits of the foot soldiers, cannot alter realities. And the reality that the Congress and the UPA-2 Government is confronted with today is grim, very grim.
Consider the facts. The election of the UPA for a second term in 2009 owed to three factors: a resounding win in Andhra Pradesh, an equally conclusive victory in Tamil Nadu and unexpected gains in urban India that added significantly to its overall tally. Today, the Congress is beleaguered on all three fronts.
In Andhra Pradesh, it is sandwiched between forces that are insisting on Telengana and those who feel betrayed by the imminent division of the united Telugu-speaking state. There may well be an intense rivalry between the breakaway YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy and the Telugu Desam Party of N.Chanrababu Naidu. But the point to note is that the Congress stands nowhere in this battle. Indeed, wearing the Congress badge has become a symbol of dishonour—the reason why most Congress ministers from Andhra Pradesh have thought it wise to quit the Manmohan Singh Government. Worse, this irrelevance in the Seemandhra region has not been offset by tangible gains in the Telengana region. The Cabinet may decide to fast-track the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh but even in the Telengana region the p[olitical benefits will accrue to the Telengana Rashtriya Samity. For the Congress, Andhra Pradesh seems a complete write-off. As things stand today, it is possible that the Congress may fail to win even a single seat from state that gave it such a shot in the arm in 2009.
The story may not be a grim in Tamil Nadu, especially because the Congress-DMK alliance will be resurrected in some form before the 2014 election. But a last-minute patch-up after a prolonged bout of bitterness is unlikely to recreate the chemistry of 2009. Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa may not win all the 40 or so seats but the AIADMK seems set to come to the next Lok Sabha as the third largest party.
Add to this the precarious position of the Congress throughout urban India which accounts for more than 50 parliamentary seats, and it is possible to appreciate the logic of those who say that the Congress will be lucky to secure more than 100 seats. Apart from Karnataka, it is difficult to see the Congress bettering or matching its 2009 tally in any state. The prospects of the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the 16th Lok Sabha looks, at present, to be remote.
Yet, like generals who have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, neither the Congress nor the UPA should be completely written off as yet. Every incumbent government has bags of tricks in reserve which, intelligently use and with a dose of luck, can nullify adversity. Moreover, it needs the BJP to score a few self-goals for the Congress to begin an aggressive retaliation.
It is in this context that the elections to the five state Assemblies acquire importance. If the Congress can somehow maintain the status quo, or compensate a possible loss in Rajasthan with an unexpected victory in either Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, it will go into the 2014 election with a measure of chance. A modestly good outcome will make it possible for parties such as the BSP to even consider an electoral understanding with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. Such talks are at their very initial stages at present and both sides have adopted a wait-and-watch approach. Ideally, the BSP would like to deal with a weakened Congress that will be prepared to concede seats to it in places such as Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. On its part, a half-decent performance should create conditions for the Congress to demand a fair settlement.
Either way, the Congress has begun the search for new allies in right earnest. It is not that the Congress seriously hopes to manage a UPA-3 Government. Its principal focus is to narrow the gap between it and the BJP to such an extent that it becomes impossible for any stable government to emerge in 2014. A short burst of instability and incoherent government, the Congress hopes, should set the stage for a grand dynastic return in another two years. By this time the novelty of Narendra Modi would have worn off considerably.
There is little point in denouncing such cynical calculations as morally reprehensible. The more important thing is to be mindful that the Congress doesn’t appear to fighting the 2014 with an eye to victory but with the sole purpose of making life as hellish as possible for its opponents both in 2014 and beyond.
Sunday Pioneer, August 6, 2013