The Congress has already been deserted by the urban middle classes and the youth, but by outsourcing its battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi to the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party, the grand old party could end up inflicting more damage on itself.
Experts feel such a strategy could further erode Congress’ support base of minorities and scheduled castes, reports Anita Katyal.
When the Congress was routed in the recently-concluded assembly polls, its leadership however drew solace from its victories in the minority-dominated constituencies of Delhi -- although the party managed to win a meagre eight seats. Of these, four Congress candidates were Muslims with Asif Mohammad Khan winning from Okhla, Chaudhary Mateen Ahmad bagging the Saleempur seat, Hasan Ahmad winning the Mustafabad constituency and Haroon Yusuf emerging victorious in Ballimaran.
Putting up a brave face despite its defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, Congress strategists were quick to point to its win in the four Muslim-dominated seats to argue that their party continued to enjoy the confidence of the minority community, which it hopes would further consolidate in its favour in the general elections and prove as a catalyst to halt Modi’s onward march to the national centrestage.
The Congress, they said, will be the preferred choice of the minorities since it has the geographical spread and the secular credentials to take on the BJP.
However, these calculations could prove wrong if the recent assembly results and the Congress’ steady decline are anything to go by. There is a growing fear in the Congress that if it depends heavily on Arvind Kejriwal to checkmate Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the minorities could shift allegiance to the debutant AAP which will be viewed as the party of the future with the potential to contain Modi’s surge.
“Had there been a fresh election in Delhi, we would have lost the four minority-dominated seats as AAP would be seen to be better placed to tackle the BJP. This would have sent a strong message across the Hindi heartland,” a senior Congress leader told Rediff.com.
“When the recent assembly elections took place, AAP was a new and untested party. The electorate was not sure how well it would perform. But now that the one-year-old party has proved itself, there is every possibility that it would be taken more seriously by the minorities”, the leader added.
Although it is not clear the number of seats that AAP is planning to contest in the upcoming general election, it is generally believed that Kejriwal’s party is largely an urban phenomenon and that it can impact the electoral outcomes in about 200-odd urban and semi-urban Lok Sabha constituencies.
According to the Congress party’s calculations, this would put Modi and AAP in direct confrontation as both parties appeal to the same constituency: the middle class and youth.
While the BJP has reason to worry, the Congress cannot escape unscathed either. As the party in power, it has borne the brunt of the opposition attack and paid a heavy electoral price for corruption and price rise in the recent assembly elections. The story is unlikely to change in the next few months.
Besides the fear of losing the minority vote, the Congress is worried that it could face desertion from the scheduled castes (SCs), which have traditionally supported it.
While the Bahujan Samaj Party has weaned away a large chunk of the SC vote, the recent assembly election proved to be a wake-up call for its chief Mayawati who had toured extensively in the four states.
The BSP was also hit by the AAP whirlwind in Delhi as the new party won nine of the 12 reserved seats while Mayawati’s party failed to open its account although it was confident of improving on its last tally of two seats. In fact, the BSP’s overall performance was disappointing as it bagged only eight seats as against 17 in the 2008 elections.
In fact, these election results could well force the BSP to reconsider its decision to have a pre-poll alliance with the Congress in the electorally-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. While the Samajwadi Party is steadily going downhill, Mayawati is waiting to cash in on the anti-incumbency against the Akhilesh Yadav government.
However, the BJP has been gaining ground because of the polarisation of the electorate. If AAP also joins the fray, even though its spread is limited, it can damage the BSP.
Although Mayawati has never been favourable to a pre-poll alliance, the Congress and the BSP could be forced to explore such an arrangement in a bid to consolidate the SCs and minorities. There are murmurs in the Congress about such a tie-up but it’s still early to say if it will eventually fructify.
If Kejriwal’s AAP decides to spread its wings in the Lok Sabha elections, as it has indicated, the Congress will find itself in further trouble in states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Himachal Pradesh where it is pitted directly against the BJP. Both the Congress and the BJP will face the heat if the AAP emerges as a serious player in these states as the Delhi experiment has shown that an electorate, disillusioned with mainstream political parties, is willing to put its faith in a new party.
If these ten states pose a problem for the Congress, the party’s prospects are worse in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where it has little or no presence and has to contend with strong regional parties.
Congress leaders maintain it will not be easy for the fledgling AAP to scale up its operations to the national level in such a short span. “Contesting in a compact place like Delhi is very different from fighting elections in vast Lok Sabha constituencies,” a Congress office bearer told Rediff.com.
Nevertheless, the nervousness in the Congress is palpable. The party did not give AAP an outside chance in Delhi when it started off but the Congress has been proved wrong. On its part, the BJP will hope that the AAP will concentrate on states where it has negligible presence.
Image: AAP leader and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal
Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters