The Congress party’s losing streak continues with a crushing defeat in the Tripura assembly elections and a less than impressive performance in the elections to the assemblies of Meghalaya and Nagaland, where the party failed to secure a clear majority.
GVL Narasimha Rao
In the aftermath of the populist Budget with sops for every voter group that buoyed the government’s hopes, the Congress was bracing for a fight with the Left parties to push the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
The latest electoral setbacks have stung the Congress, raising internal doubts about the party’s electability in any early general election.
The assembly elections to these tiny states in the North-East may not have much national significance. But, the problem for the Congress is that it has not won any major election (save equally tiny states such as Manipur and Goa) for nearly two years. The bad patch began in 2006, continued throughout 2007 and there is no respite in 2008.
The Congress was confident of reversing the trend of losing elections with a string of victories in these tiny states, and the failure to capture power in any of the three states is extremely disappointing for party stalwarts.
Winning elections acts as a morale booster across the board and, in the run-up to the general election scheduled for next year, the Congress needs to end this electoral drought to promote a feel-good factor among party leaders, cadre and other supporters.
The Congress is so worried about losing another round of assembly elections that the party is doing its best to delay elections to the Karnataka assembly. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was well placed in Karnataka, and was riding a sympathy wave, until recently. The Congress is hopeful that the waiver of farm loans, the populist Budget and the return of S.M. Krishna as the party’s undeclared chief ministerial nominee will boost its prospects. Yet, the party is unwilling to risk another defeat in a mainland state, as that would dim its hopes of returning to power at the Centre.
Before facing the national electorate, the Congress hopes to wrest the BJP-ruled states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and retain Delhi. While retaining Delhi now seems like a remote possibility for the Congress, wresting the three BJP-ruled states is also a challenge, as a confident BJP appears to have recovered from what seemed to be a certain defeat a few months ago.
The Congress has serious leadership problems in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the party is not in a position to announce its chief ministerial candidates. Its former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, has a very poor image and people still recall his tenure as a bad dream and, thus, can easily be scared into voting for the BJP if he is projected as the Congress chief minister.
Jyotiraditya Scindia, the scion of the Scindia family, while a popular rising star in the state, faces many factions. So, building a consensus around a young leader such as him will not be an easy task if the the Congress party chooses to do so. Ex-Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has an excellent image, but he is not acceptable to some influential caste groups, such as Jats, as well as government employees who still nurse a grudge against him for dealing them with an iron hand.
Meanwhile, the fourth consecutive victory of the Left Front in Tripura is a morale booster for the Left. Under attack from all quarters for the Nandigram land battles, the Left Front has once again shown that it remains a potent force in its own strongholds.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, dependent for life support on the Left Front’s outside support, needs the Left, not only to complete its current five-year term, but, in many ways, also to return to power after the next Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress fears that an estranged Left Front will galvanize a number of regional parties—belonging to the third front as well as some members of the UPA—to rally behind it after the next Lok Sabha polls to form an alternative government. Confrontation with the Left parties will embolden it to try and hasten the process of consolidation of an anti-Congress alternative, the ‘fourth front’, comprising the Left parties and various regional parties, including some third-front partners and current UPA allies.
It appears that the Tripura election has again averted a showdown by the Congress with the Left Front. This means that the Indo-US civil nuclear deal could—yet again—become a casualty despite recent hopes that the Congress could push on. And that means the UPA government is again looking at a full term as suggested by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday, even as he is headed to the US later this month to discuss the nuclear deal.
These kinds of flip-flops are, in many ways, the biggest disappointment of this UPA government.
(G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)