The electoral prospects may look promising for the Congress, but only by these narratives and factors.
If seen through the usual lens which is used to analyse electoral patterns and trends to anticipate electoral outcomes, Congress’ electoral prospects in 2018 seem to be better as compared to the recent past. The Congress can hope to gain from the anti-incumbency mood, which may be prevailing against the BJP government in three states i.e. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. A small swing of votes in favour of the Congress in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh can give victory to the Congress, though in Rajasthan it would need a much bigger swing to tilt the electoral balance in its favour. The Congress would be at the receiving end only in Karnataka but even there, the BJP might need a big swing in its favour to be able to dislodge Congress from power. A reasonably good performance of the Congress in recently held Assembly elections in Gujarat has enthused the party and it hopes to capitalise on this mood. It also hopes to gain electorally from rural unrest (farmers’ crisis), which is visible in the states going to polls this year more so because these states are largely rural. By these parameters, it is reasonable for the Congress to hope for a better 2018, compared electorally to the recent past.
The electoral prospects may look promising for the Congress, but only by these narratives and factors. When elections are held in mid and late 2018, the Congress may find it difficult to defeat the BJP in its stronghold of MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In fact, holding on to power in Karnataka may prove to be a tedious task for the Congress. A careful analysis of electoral outcome in recent years suggests that the BJP holds better chances of winning elections in these states.
The Congress might hope to gain from 15 years of anti-incumbency, which the BJP government may face in MP and Chhattisgarh and of five years in Rajasthan, while it would be at the receiving end in Karnataka. But the way BJP has contested the Assembly elections in different states post 2014 Lok Sabha elections shows that the standard narrative of anti-incumbency does not work. The BJP contested Assembly elections in Gujarat against so many odds but it still managed to win for the sixth time in a row, negating the theory of anti-incumbency. If a party can overcome 22 years of anti-incumbency in Gujarat, it may be possible for the same election machinery to overcome 15 years of anti-incumbency in MP and Chhattisgarh.
Going by the way votes are distributed between the Congress and the BJP, the former can manage to win election in Chhattisgarh by a small 2 per cent swing of votes and by 5-6 per cent swing of votes in MP in its favour. But in the absence of a formidable state leadership, the Congress may even find this difficult. The Congress needs a much bigger swing — may be more than 8 per cent votes — to win the elections in Rajasthan. The same holds true for the BJP which would need more than 10 per cent swing of votes in its favour to win in Karnataka. While the Congress might suffer from the handicap of leadership in Rajasthan, the BJP has no such disadvantage. In Karnataka, the Congress might be on a receiving end by way of facing some anti-incumbency.
The relatively better performance of the Congress in rural Gujarat is seen as a sign of revival of the Congress in rural India as a result of farmers’ unhappiness in particular and rural unrest in general. The Congress is hoping that it may have better electoral prospects in 2018 as the three states of MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are basically agricultural states and a huge majority of people are depended upon farming for their livelihood. Of the total 230 seats in MP 155 are rural, in Rajasthan of 200 Assembly seats 147 seats are rural, in Chhattisgarh of the total 90 Assembly seats 68 are rural, while in Karnataka only 133 of the total 224 Assembly seats are rural.
The Congress revival in rural Gujarat is being over interpreted as its voteshare in rural Gujarat increased only by 1.3% while in urban Gujarat it increased by 2.3 per cent and in semi-urban constituencies the voteshare increased by 5.1 per cent. The Congress still trailed behind the BJP even in rural Gujarat by one per cent votes. Yes, one gets visible signs of the farmers’unhappiness with the state government in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but an assumption that their unhappiness would make them vote against the BJP may be an overstatement. A hope for a victory on the back of rural unrest may turn into an unfulfilled dream for the Congress in these states.
The anti-incumbency theory seems to be a thing of past. The Congress can’t hope for a victory only because of anti-incumbency. The voters are unlikely to shift towards the Congress only because in a bi-polar contest in these states they would have no choices than to vote for Congress, if unhappy with the BJP government. If the Congress needs to put up a challenge for the BJP, it needs to change its election strategy.
Contesting elections are no more a part time affair or battle which could be won by last minute preparations. In order to challenge a well-oiled election machinery like that of BJP, the Congress not only needs to oil its old machinery, but change some of its election machinery or, at least, change some tools of the election machinery which seem to have become outdated by now.
The writer is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.