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Will the Congress score a century?

April 01, 2004

Everybody in India seems to have an opinion about Rahul Dravid's decision to declare the Indian innings at Multan at a mammoth 675 --when Sachin Tendulkar was just one mighty heave short of a Test double-century. I cannot help wondering if the Congress (I) too will be left high and dry; however, it won't be a double-century but the humbler century mark that seems to be receding for India's oldest party'.

The Election Commission issued the notification for the 14th general election for all 'States, Union Territories, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi.' In reality, however, every Lok Sabha election revolves around just 12 states, which between them account for 440 of the Lok Sabha's 543 elected members.

In ascending order, these are: Kerala (20), Orissa (21), Rajasthan (25), Gujarat (26), Karnataka (28), Madhya Pradesh (29), Tamil Nadu (39), Bihar (40), Andhra Pradesh (42), West Bengal (42), Maharashtra (48), and Uttar Pradesh (80). With all due respect to the voters of the other territorial units, it is this dozen which will set the tone.

That does not mean the rest of India is either unimportant or uninteresting. Every seat counts in a close-drawn contest, a lesson the Atal Bihari Vajpayee ministry learned after losing a crucial confidence motion in 1999. And several of the smaller states --such as Assam, Punjab, and Jammu & Kashmir --will witness fascinating battles. But the dozen states I named above simply pack more punch. Which brings up the all-important question: how many of the 440 can the Congress (I) win?

The startling fact is that the Sonia Gandhi Pvt Ltd [Private Limited] can't be sure of winning even half the seats in any of the 12 states apart from Kerala (which is the smallest of them all). Recent opinion polls suggest that the Congress (I) and its allies have a better than decent chance of grabbing the lion's share in Tamil Nadu as well, but I refer here to just the party which governed India for most of the post-Independence era.

In fact, I think we can prune the list a bit more, and look at just five of the twelve mentioned above Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. These elect 200 members of Parliament between them. Can the Congress (I) win at least 30 seats from these five states? The signs are not particularly promising.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress (I) is a distant fourth, well behind the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Samajwadi Party. The party won 10 of the 85 seats in 1999 (this was before Uttaranchal was sliced off to become a separate state). Having picked an unnecessary fight with Mulayam Singh Yadav while failing to win Mayawati, the Congress (I) finds itself friendless in India's largest state. Despite the entry of Rahul Gandhi, the odds of equalling the party's 1999 performance are slim.

I have heard some Congressmen privately crib about Sonia Gandhi's failure to tie up with either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. That is unfair: the greatest diplomat in the world couldn't have arranged a satisfactory solution when those parties know perfectly well that it isn't in their interest to strengthen the Congress (I). What happens after the general election is another issue, but both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati would prefer to deal with Sonia Gandhi from a position of strength.

That is also true of Laloo Prasad Yadav. While the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss has agreed to an electoral alliance, he has refused to allot more than four seats to the Congress (I), just a tenth of the constituencies in Bihar (the state used to elect 54 members of Parliament, but 14 seats now belong to Jharkhand). Laloo Prasad Yadav may want to 'strengthen the hands of the secular forces' but he has chosen to do so by cutting the Congress (I) down in Bihar.

What of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan? These states are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the party hasn't really been in power long enough in the first and the last named to suffer because of any anti-incumbency effect. And the Congress (I) is wary of any attack on Narendra Modi since the Gujarat chief minister has become something of an icon in his home state.

This is indeed the era of diminished expectations for the Congress (I). Once it was used to winning absolute majorities (over 272 seats in the Lok Sabha). Then it was reduced to planning for a working majority (less than 272 but with support from other parties). In the post-P V Narasimha Rao period, the Congress (I) began thinking of alliances. Today, under Sonia Gandhi, it would be counting its blessings if could reach the three-figure mark.

A Sehwag-like triple ton is a dream out of any single party's reach today, but the Bharatiya Janata Party thinks a Tendulkar-ish 194 could be within touching distance. However, is there even a Yousuf Youhana in the team to save the Congress (I) from total humiliation?

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T V R Shenoy

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