Stop worrying about Narendra Modi. Stop worrying about the BJP’s hat-tricks in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Stop worrying about the decimation of your party in Rajasthan and in Delhi. You have more to be concerned about, Congressmen!
Madhya Pradesh (29 seats), Rajasthan (25 seats), Chhattisgarh (11 seats), and Delhi (7 seats) account for just 72 Lok Sabha constituencies. Even if you add Mizoram’s single seat – the Assembly election results are being counted one day after the other four states – that accounts for only 73 parliamentary seats. Last week I asked what might happen if the Congress ‘High Command’ could no longer command. The answer should worry the Congress.
It was the common refrain of all the Congress spokespersons that the party put no faith in opinion polls and exit polls – since when? – and refused to participate in any debate based on those surveys. But one Congressman who took them very seriously indeed was Kiran Kumar Reddy.
Before a single vote was counted – but after the exit polls were released – the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh unfurled the banner of revolt against the ‘High Command’. The decision to carve a separate Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh was approved by the Congress Working Committee and by the Union Cabinet. But Kiran Kumar Reddy said he would ensure the proposal would be defeated when debated in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly.
The assent of a state legislature to the division of that state is desirable but not mandatory. But when was the last time that a sitting Congress Chief Minister contemptuously threw a mandate by the ‘High Command’ in the trash? Kiran Kumar Reddy has realised that the Nehru-Gandhis cannot guarantee votes, and is looking out for himself. The Congress’s allies won’t be left behind in looking out for their own interests. Some will demand a bigger share of the ministerial or electoral pie, others will simply jump ship.
To answer my own question, the Congress should lay aside its drubbing in the four recently concluded polls, and look at three other states, namely Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Kerala. As I said, the five states that just went to the hustings account for 73 seats. But Maharashtra has 48 constituencies, undivided Andhra Pradesh has 42 seats, and Kerala sends 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha. That is a total of 110 seats.
How did the Congress fare in the three states in the General Election of 2009? The party won 13 of Kerala’s 20 seats, it won 17 of Maharashtra’s 48 seats, and a whopping 33 of Andhra Pradesh’s 42 constituencies. That is 63 MPs in all. (Its allies – the NCP in Maharashtra, the Kerala Congress and the Muslim League in Kerala – won more seats.)
How many of those 63 Congress MPs have a realistic chance of being re-elected in 2014? Especially if one or the other ally is in a sullen mood? Congress spokespersons hunting for reasons to explain away the devastating losses in Rajasthan and in Delhi – Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were more or less expected – turned to that old stand-by, namely the price of onions. But they lacked the guts to mention the one man who might have had the power to do something about it.
Sharad Pawar is both the Union Agriculture Minister and boss of the Nationalist Congress Party, the Congress’s alliance partner in Maharashtra (India’s largest onion-producing state). What did he do to alleviate the rocketing prices of onions, in fact of food items in general? But that is a question that Congressmen simply do not dare to ask. Why not? Because the Congress is scared that its allies are looking for any excuse to walk out of the United Progressive Alliance. Sharad Pawar himself is not inhibited. Within hours of the Congress’s electoral drubbing he accused his ally of having “weak leadership leading to the rise of pseudo-activists”.
What about Kerala? Alliances are even more important here for the Congress than in Maharashtra. In Mumbai, the Congress is the single largest party in the Assembly, but the 2011 polls in Kerala gave the CPI(M) 45 seats and the Congress but 38 in a 140-strong House. If there is a Congress Chief Minister in Thiruvananthapuram it is entirely thanks to the Congress’s allies.
As noted in my last column, Sheila Dikshit arranged for Oommen Chandy to campaign in Malayali-dominated parts of Delhi but the ploy did not work. The Kondli seat where he held a meeting fell to the Aam Aadmi Party, with the Congress candidate – and sitting MLA – Amrish Singh Gautam coming third, behind the BJP too.
The RK Puram seat, which has a large number of South Indians in general, not just Malayalis, will now be represented by the BJP’s Anil Kumar Sharma. In this constituency too, the Congress was beaten into the third place, behind the Aam Aadmi Party’s high-profile Shazia Ilmi. In the waning days of the campaign in Delhi the Congress tried the desperate ploy of playing the communal card. Four of the eight successful Congress candidates in Delhi – Haroon Yusuf (Ballimaran), Hasan Ahmed (Mustafabad), Asif Mohammad Khan (Okhla), Chaudhary Mateen Ahmad (Seelampur)-are from minority-dominated constituencies but the majority responded with cold contempt.
That silly attempt to talk about ‘communalism’ did not work. Talking about inflation and corruption did work – but against the Congress, being seen as issues that the Manmohan Singh ministry failed to tackle. Away from the drawing-rooms of Delhi Congressmen, and their allies, must be wondering if the mistakes of the Congress ‘High Command’ could destroy them as easily as it did the three-time Chief Minister of Delhi. The Congress was reduced to 154 MPs in the post-Emergency elections of 1977. Andhra Pradesh (41), Tamil Nadu (14), Kerala (11) , Karnataka (26), and Maharashtra (20) accounted for 112 of those MPs, giving Indira Gandhi the base to return to power in 1980.
Today, the Congress is hopelessly divided in Andhra Pradesh, at the mercy of its allies in Kerala, and hunting for an ally in Tamil Nadu. It could improve in Karnataka but will that be enough to offset losses if its house in Maharashtra goes up in flames? Andhra Pradesh will elect an Assembly at the same time as the Lok Sabha elections. The term of Maharashtra’s Assembly runs out on December 7 , 2014. Kerala’s Assembly is supposed to run up to May 31, 2016. But if the authority of the ‘High Command’ continues to erode there is a strong chance that the departure of allies could force both Maharashtra and Kerala into polls as early as May 2014. The Nehru-Gandhis’ fortunes are on the ebb. We could see skittish Congress allies leave the UPA at, to use Rahul Gandhi’s own phrase, “the escape velocity of Jupiter”!