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2014 may be the worst year in Congress history

December 30, 2013 12:00 IST

Sonia and Rahul GandhiCrores of first-time voters will vote against the Congress -- and tens of crores of existing voters shall do the same. The challenges the Congress shall face after the general election of 2014 may be the most severe that the party has ever tackled, says T V R Shenoy.

The Congress has 149,362,120 reasons to fear the looming general election of 2014. Those are 14 crore, 93 lakh, 62,000, 120 causes for failure that they had the chance to avoid. And therein lies a tale of missed opportunity.

When the DMK walked out of the United Progressive Alliance on March 19, the Congress had a simple game-plan. It would rush the Food Security Act through Parliament, wait for the results of the Karnataka assembly polls (which the BJP was expected to lose) on May 8, and then call for a dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

The chief reason, which was discussed at a meeting of the most senior Congress leaders in the wake of the DMK's decision, was the deteriorating economic situation.

The second reason was that they felt it was better to have a general election after victory in Karnataka rather than after (suspected) losses in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Delhi.

Third, the Congress feared the outcome of more scandals.

Would the Congress have performed badly had elections been held in November or December of 2013 as opposed to April or May of 2014?

Yes, but things will now be far worse. Seven months ago, there was no clarity on who would lead the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party was still finding its footsteps.

Today, Narendra Modi is in full command, and the Aam Aadmi Party has reduced the Congress to splinters in Delhi.

And up on the horizon are those 14 crore, 93 lakh, 62,000, 120 reasons that I mentioned.

Take a look at the Election Commission's photo identity cards. At the bottom of the photo side of the card are the words 'Age as on 1. 1.' followed by a year.

To participate in the general election of 2014 an Indian citizen needs to be eighteen years old as of New Year's Day of 2014; anyone who turns eighteen on the second of January, 2014 must wait until the next election.

So, how many new voters shall there be in 2014 as over the 2009 Lok Sabha polls?

When I left Delhi a few weeks ago the Election Commission was starting the process of updating the voter list; huge banners said the revision would run from December 16 through December 31. There are no exact figures as I write because the exercise still has some days to run.

But another institution, namely the Census of India, offers some intriguing clues.

The Census, unlike the updating of the electoral register, is conducted just once every ten years, and the last time was in 2011.

I went through the numbers, and plucked out the figures given for those who were 15 years old in 2011 up to those that were listed as 20 years old in that year.

Why? Because there is a possibility -- not a certainty -- that those who were 15 years old in 2011 shall be eligible to vote three years later, while those who were 20 years old might not have been listed as adults in 2009 (because of the January cut-off date mentioned earlier).

There were 25,891,864 -- two crore, 58 lakh, 91,000, 864 in the Indian notation -- 15-year-old Indians in 2011.

There were 24,584,341 -- two crore, 45 lakh, 84,000 thousand, 341 -- 16-year-olds in 2011.

There were 21,210,681 -- two crore, 12 lakh, 10,000, 681 -- 17-year-old citizens in the last Census.

There were 27,949,127 -- two crore, 79 lakh, 49,000, 127 -- Indians listed as 18 years of age in 2011.

There were 20,852,240 -- two crore, eight lakh, 52,000, 240 citizens that were 19 years old in 2011.

Finally, there were 28,873,867 -- two crore, 88 lakh, 73,000, 867 Indians that were 20 years old in 2011.

That tots up to 149,362,120 potential voters who did not vote in 2009, but might be eligible to do so come 2014.

It is possible that several citizens did not bother to enrol themselves during the process of revision. But let us take that 149,362,120 as a working estimate.

Most political parties make it a point to run down opinion polls, but I know for a fact that the larger outfits conduct them for their own purposes. Only the Aam Aadmi Party is honest enough to admit that it conducts such surveys.

Two of these opinion polls -- one conducted by the BJP and the other by the Aam Aadmi Party -- arrived at a similar conclusion, namely that roughly 80 per cent of these first-time voters (as far as a Lok Sabha poll is concerned) are strongly anti-Congress.

Almost all of the rest were undecided, but only an insignificant number were prepared to vote for the Congress. Private conversations with Congress leaders suggest that they agree with this.

Assuming the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party surveys are correct, that 80 per cent of first-time voters comes to over 11 crore and 94 lakh.

In 2009 the Congress won 119,111,019 (11 crore, 91 lakh, 1,019) votes.

Briefly, the potential number of dissatisfied new voters is greater than the total number of pro-Congress voters in 2009.

Going by the trends in Rajasthan and in Delhi -- both states that the Congress swept in 2009 -- you must also assume that a large number of those who voted for the Congress last time are switching preferences in 2014.

Even in 1999 -- when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP returned to power -- the Congress actually had more votes than the BJP, 28.30 per cent of the whole compared to the BJP's 23.75 per cent.

The BJP then contested only 339 seats while the Congress put up candidates in 453 constituencies.

Apart from the post-Emergency debacle of 1977 -- when the Congress was outpolled by the Janata Party, 34.52 per cent to 41.32 per cent -- the general election of 2014 could be the first time that the Congress receives fewer votes than the major anti-Congress party. And the Janata Party of 1977 was not so much a unified organisation as it was a hastily cobbled-up coalition.

The Congress leadership lacks charisma. The Congress cadres are non-existent. Crores of first-time voters will vote against the Congress -- and tens of crores of existing voters shall do the same.

The challenges the Congress shall face after the general election of 2014 may be the most severe that the party has ever tackled.

And more than one Congress leader is ruing the loss of nerve that prevented a winter election in 2013 rather than a summer poll in 2014.

Happy New Year, 10 Janpath!

Image: Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, at a news conference after the four-state assembly results, December 8, 2013. Photograph: Reuters

For more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy, please click here.

T V R Shenoy