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Can the Congress afford a high-handed approach anymore?

February 24, 2012 21:00 IST

The Congress has been reduced to dust in Tamil Nadu by its allies. The Trinamool Congress is set to do the same in West Bengal. And the NCP is gaining at the Congress's expense in Maharashtra, notes T V R Shenoy.

Speaking of a one-party government at the Centre, given current Indian politics, is a fairy tale.

Since coalitions are the order of the day which model should one follow? Will it be Gulliver, or shall it be Snow White?

In the Gulliver model of coalition the giant -- meaning the largest party -- is tied down by the many Lilliputians, the smaller partners. In the Snow White model the heroine towers over a few dwarves.

The CPI-M has perfected the Snow White model. (The comrades would probably prefer a Communist colour, say 'Red' Riding Hood!) Whether in West Bengal or in Kerala, the CPI-M is always the undisputed 'Big Brother' of the Left Front.;

It chooses its Left Front partners carefully; the parent CPI was kept out until it confessed its errors at its Bhatinda session. And whether the Left Front wins or loses, you generally see the CPI-M emerging with more seats and more votes than all its smaller partners put together.

So, what happens to the smaller partners in a CPI-M-dominated coalition? I mentioned the CPI earlier, so see how it performed both before and after it accepted the CPI-M's leadership.

In the 1977 assembly polls in West Bengal, when the CPI was allied with the Congress, it won 2.62 per cent of the total votes. That, of course, was a losing coalition, an election held in the wake of the Emergency.

2006 was the last time that a Left Front ministry was returned to power in West Bengal. Despite being part of a winning coalition, the CPI's share of the total vote fell to 1.91 per cent, slightly worse than the BJP's share in the same assembly election.

How about that Leftist bastion, Kerala? In 1977, the sitting chief minister in a Congress-CPI coalition was the CPI's C Achutha Menon, and the CPI won 23 of the 27 seats it contested. The CPI-M could manage just 17 seats.

For larger reasons, as noted above, the Congress-CPI alliance broke, and the CPI accepted the CPI-M's leadership. In 2006, the LDF won the polls, but this time the CPI had just 17 seats while the CPI-M's tally had climbed to 61. (Kindness prevents me from relating what happened to the CPI in the 2011 polls.)

That is the fate of CPI-M allies.

The CPI-M is not 'Red' Riding Hood, it is the Big Bad Wolf that gobbles up everything around it.

Let us now turn to the Lilliput of contemporary Indian politics, the Congress.

The Congress's three principal allies in the United Progressive Alliance are Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, M Karunanidhi's DMK, and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. So, how has the Congress fared at the grassroots, in West Bengal, in Tamil Nadu, and in Maharashtra?

We have recent data in hand, gigantic opinion polls in the form of local body elections.

Of the ten major corporations -- Chennai, Madurai, Kovai, Salem, Erode, Trichy, Tuticorin, Tirupur, Vellore, Kovai -- there is an AIADMK mayor in each.

There are 123 municipalities, of which 88 now have AIADMK chairpersons, 23 have DMK chairpersons, and the Congress has zero.

There are 222 district panchayat ward members, of which 202 belong to the AIADMK, just eight belong to the DMK, and a mere two are Congressmen.

The Congress has been in a coalition with either the DMK or the AIADMK since 1971 -- just over forty years -- and now it cannot win a single Lok Sabha seat on its own. Forget the Lok Sabha, can the Congress win a single assembly seat without dancing before either J Jayalalithaa or M Karunanidhi?

That was Tamil Nadu in October 2011. How did the Congress fare in Maharashtra in February 2012?

The Congress could not make up its mind whether it was fighting the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, or if its true foe was Sharad Pawar's party. Eventually, the Congress decided that the NCP was indeed an ally, but it was a fainthearted acceptance -- and the NCP knew that.

The Mumbai results hogged the headlines thanks to the city's stature as India's financial capital, and the BMC's being the richest civic body in India. In 2007 the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party fought separately -- and lost. In 2012 the Congress fought alongside the Nationalist Congress Party -- and lost.

Mumbai grabbed so much attention that the rest of Maharashtra was forgotten. That is a mistake; the state elects more MPs to the Lok Sabha than any state bar Uttar Pradesh. How did the Congress and the NCP perform in the state as a whole?

The ten big corporations -- Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nagpur, Ulhasnagar, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Sholapur, Nashik, Akola, Amravati -- have 1,244 corporation seats between them. Of these, the NCP won 265 and the Congress won 264. There is really nothing to choose between them.

The Shiv Sena won 227 seats, the BJP got 205, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won 112. The obvious beneficiaries of the split in the Thackeray clan were the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.

But let us look beyond the larger towns. In all, there are 1,639 Zilla Parishad seats spread across 27 districts. Of these, the Nationalist Congress Party tally was 526, and that of the Congress was 458. The BJP won 198 and the Shiv Sena got 255.

What do those numbers say about the relative status of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra?

Let us dig a little deeper, and look at some of the Zilla Parishad elections that are of particular interest. The State Election Commission site, http://www.mahasec.com/eng/main.asp, is a great resource.

Nagpur is one of those places where the Congress and the BJP were pitted against each other, their respective regional partners playing a smaller role. The fact that BJP President Nitin Gadkari may fight the next Lok Sabha election from Nagpur added extra spice.

The Nagpur Zilla Parishad has 59 seats. The BJP won 22 and the Congress snagged 19. But the Shiv Sena has eight seats -- giving the alliance a majority -- while the NCP has but seven.

Pune, the cultural capital of Maharashtra, has 75 Zilla Parishad seats. Here, the NCP won 42, a clear majority, which means that it has no need to lean on the parent Congress's eleven seats. The BJP and the Shiv Sena won three and twelve respectively.

Thane, said to be the fastest growing area in Maharashtra, has 66 Zilla Parishad seats. Sharad Pawar's NCP won 26, but the Congress won get just one seat. The Shiv Sena won 15, the BJP won 11, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena played spoiler by winning two seats.

The difference between the NCP and the parent Congress gets starker the farther you delve. Digging down to the Panchayat level, there were 3,248 seats in all of Maharashtra. Of these, the NCP won 1,033, thus handily outpacing the 864 seats that the parent Congress could manage. The Shiv Sena won 503 seats, the BJP won 404, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won 43.

Based on these results, will the Nationalist Congress Party play second fiddle to the Congress in the next Lok Sabha election? And can the Congress afford to take the same high-handed approach that it took in Mumbai, where Congressmen sniffed that the NCP lacked a base?

The Congress has been reduced to dust in Tamil Nadu by its allies. The Trinamool Congress is set to do the same in West Bengal. And the NCP is gaining at the Congress's expense in Maharashtra.

Will Gulliver break the Lilliputian strings, or will he be enslaved?

YOu can read more columns by T V R Shenoy here

T V R Shenoy in New Delhi