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How can the Congress make it on its own?

After weeks of indecision,last week the Congress party got serious about sewing up its alliance with the NCP ahead of next...

Written by Adam Ziegfeld |
September 22, 2009 2:39:24 am

After weeks of indecision,last week the Congress party got serious about sewing up its alliance with the NCP ahead of next month’s Maharashtra polls. But,even after the Grand Old Party finally put to rest the notion of contesting alone,the Congress has continued to wrangle with its ally first over the number of seats and now,over which seats it will contest. Meanwhile,the BJP faces an open rebellion in the aftermath of its seat-sharing pact with the Shiv Sena. The heartburn election alliances have caused in recent days reflects the importance of these negotiations. A well-devised seat-sharing agreement can go a long way in determining the winner on election day. But the ongoing events in Maharashtra have the potential to tell us not just about the shape of Maharashtra’s next government but also about the future of politics in the country as a whole.

For the Congress,the Maharashtra polls are a first test of the lessons the party has (or has not) learned from spring’s national elections. The party’s initial indecision about whether to ally with the NCP and its continued talk of possibly eschewing alliances in the coming elections in Bihar and Jharkhand has intimated the possibility that the Congress had become overconfident and misread the results of Elections 2009. However,the Congress’ ultimate posture in Maharashtra suggests something different. The party is driving a hard bargain with the NCP,but appears willing to compromise for the sake of the alliance. Such a strategy may be an ideal one in this and future assembly elections.

On the one hand,the Congress is right to have decided on a tie-up with the NCP. Even though the Congress’ performance was better than expected in the Lok Sabha polls,these same elections underlined the fact that the Congress cannot win alone at the national level or in many of the states. Had the party broken ties with allies in Maharashtra,Tamil Nadu and West Bengal,and consequently been routed in those states,the UPA’s tally could easily have been 50 seats less than what it is now. The elections also showed how much hinges on factors beyond the Congress’ control. For instance,positive results in Maharashtra depended crucially on Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena,which split the non-Congress vote,especially in Mumbai. Had the MNS not emerged on the scene,the Congress-NCP combine might not be asking voters for a repeat of the Lok Sabha polls. Since much remains outside the Congress’s control,its best bet is to be cautious when dealing with those factors it can control.

On the other hand,Congress sabre-rattling may not be entirely misplaced. The Congress’ insistence on increasing its seat allocation and driving a hard bargain about which seats to contest may have its own logic. Alliance politics pose a legitimate danger that the party may wish to heed. Though the Congress’ success depends on its alliance partners,its future can also be limited by them. Certain types of seat-sharing agreements can be particularly problematic,namely those in which a party routinely cedes the same seats to its allies. Doing so over successive elections can lead to a genuine atrophy in a party’s support base. How does a party recruit workers,followers,and future leaders in places where it never contests elections? Lingering in the back of many Congressmens’ minds may be Tamil Nadu and the fear that the party’s trajectory in other states will follow a similar path. In retrospect,observers have overstated the Congress’ weakness in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s. It was still a potent political force after the Emergency. But,thanks to its willingness in the 1980s to become an overly-accommodating junior partner to the Dravidian parties,Congress’ base has shrunk and it is now dependent on the state’s larger parties. Congress is right to want to avoid a similar situation elsewhere. For this reason,Congress does not want to appear to be a pushover. The BJP’s current troubles in Maharashtra likely reflect a similar set of concerns that the BJP may become entirely dependent on the Shiv Sena to the detriment of the party’s long-term health in the state.

Maharashtra provides important clues about the Congress’ future attitude towards its allies. But,the final chapter is not yet written. Bihar and Jharkhand will tell us even more. There has,after all,always been a segment of the Congress that has never fully accepted the realities of alliance politics. And the Congress may have,in fact,read too much into its Lok Sabha victory and be trying to script a return to an earlier era when it could come to power at the Centre on its own. If that is indeed the plan,then the Congress cannot continue to rely on allies indefinitely. Expanding its base will undoubtedly require going it alone at some point. Jharkhand and Bihar may yet be first steps in that direction. But,this strategy is incompatible with short-term success. If the Congress’ eye is on the long-run,then it has to ignore costs in the short-run and be willing to accept losing elections in which it faces a consolidated opposition. Furthermore,the Congress must aggressively invest in strengthening its grassroots — a strategy that may take time to bear fruit. Ultimately,no party likes to invite defeat,and proof of the Congress’ commitment to organisational revival is weak. So,the future of electoral politics may depend on the party’s attitude toward its allies. The biggest boon for India’s opposition will be if the Congress party wishes to eat its proverbial cake and have it too — to go it alone at the polls,while assuming that it can continue to win elections and conduct business as usual. If Congress adopts a more truculent attitude in Jharkhand and Bihar than it has in Maharashtra,then there may be hope for the BJP and others that Congress will eventually bring about its own defeat.

The writer is a postdoctoral prize research fellow at Nuffield College,Oxford.

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