The Congress’s swift announcement on May 15, the day of the Karnataka Assembly results, that it was willing to form a government with the smaller Janata Dal (Secular) in the leadership role has not just forced the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to step down in the State but has also galvanised many non-BJP parties across the country into action. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekar Rao, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and even the off-and-on BJP ally Shiv Sena have all come out in support of this arrangement. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam working president M.K. Stalin described Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala’s invitation to the BJP to form the government as a move “that will only serve to enable horse-trading and destroy our democratic foundations.”
An unequivocal message
Now, after the Congress-JD(S) combine’s success in preventing any of its MLAs from crossing over to the BJP, forcing B.S. Yeddyurappa to resign as Chief Minister before the vote of confidence, H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in on May 23 is likely to be a show of strength of opposition parties as many non-BJP leaders are scheduled to attend the ceremony. The Congress’s decision to concede space to a smaller party has sent out an unequivocal message to the rest of the opposition: it may be the principal opposition party with a national footprint (despite being in power in only three States and one Union Territory now), but if not in power, it is willing to cooperate with regional parties and even accept their leadership in the larger interest of ensuring a secular government.
Indeed, it is a more significant decision than the one the Congress took in 1996 to back the H.D. Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal to form a government at the Centre following the collapse of the 13-day Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Even if the Congress at the time was also motivated by the idea of keeping the BJP out of power, it essentially saw it as a temporary arrangement till it could figure out its next political move. At that time, the Congress had won 140 Lok Sabha seats, 21 behind the BJP’s 161, but it had polled 28.8% of the national vote, ahead of the BJP’s 20.29%. Earlier, in 1989, when incidentally it had emerged as the single largest party in Parliament, both in seat share (197) and vote share (39.53%), taking note of the national mood that favoured the V.P. Singh-led National Front, it took a back seat. In 1991, the party returned to power and ruled for five years.
But while the Congress’s decision to not make a bid for power in 1989 and 1996 was based on sound and correct politics, what its leaders failed to recognise at the time was that the ground beneath their feet was slowly slipping. There were new social realities: the rise of Other Backward Classes and the growing appeal of Hindu majoritarianism. Simultaneously, the economic reforms set in motion by its government in 1991 had generated new aspirations as the middle class grew at a faster clip. The Congress may have been instrumental in creating the new middle class, but its association with Nehruvian socialism and the English-speaking elite which, until then, had held sway over top professional jobs was enough for large sections of the new middle class, especially in smaller towns, to begin to look at the BJP as their real representative. The Congress may have noted the changes but it failed to address them directly.
In 2004, after six years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance rule, the Congress was back in power, on the promise of pluralism. But the party failed to use its decade in power to revamp its organisation to meet the challenges posed by the social changes that were taking place across India. The rise of identity-based politics saw the Congress, which was once an umbrella party that drew all sections of society, whether defined by religion, region, caste, language or class, into its embrace, wither away.
Base across social groups
Today, as the Karnataka elections have demonstrated, there is no section on which the Congress can depend on for votes. As Suhas Palshikar wrote in Party Competition in Indian States: Electoral Politics in Post-Congress Polity:
“Like during the nineties, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections also, the Congress has not only failed to secure robust vote share, but it has failed to have any social character to its vote. That is why we have mentioned the flatness of its base across social groups. Polling only under 20 per cent vote is bad enough, but not polling more among any social group is really the worst part of the Congress’s failure in 2014.
This failure indicates the larger decimation of the party than the overall vote share indicates. In a sense, this defeat might be better understood if we compare the Congress of 2014 with the Congress of 1998-99. The ephemeral ‘victory’ in 2004 and the slight recovery of 2009 were, in retrospect, only temporary features of those elections. They did not bring a trend or a reversal of the decline of the Congress.” The results of successive State elections since 2014 have only underlined this fact.
The importance of allies
Recognising the dire straits it is in, the Congress’s political resolution, at its plenary in New Delhi in March, said: “Congress will adopt a pragmatic approach for cooperation with all like-minded parties and evolve a common workable programme to defeat the BJP-RSS in the 2019 elections.” Indeed, in States with a bipolar polity, such as in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which will go to polls later this year, the Congress should give a few seats to its allies to underscore the message of cooperation, while in States such as Uttar Pradesh, where it is a marginal player, it should accept with grace the few seats that a possible Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine may give it, just as it has offered the smaller JD(S) the chief ministerial position in Karnataka.
The party has understood this. The Congress’s offer to back the JD(S), explained a senior Congressperson, springs from more than a commitment to secularism and pluralism.
The party, he said, has realised that it no longer enjoys its earlier hegemony and must, therefore, concede space to those who represent different social forces to survive.
A Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesperson took this argument further: while acknowledging the Congress’s unrivalled pan-India presence, he suggested that the regional parties should be regarded as its front line of defence against the BJP across the country. For, if the BJP is not defeated in 2019, the Congress may be looking at extinction. The focus has to be on survival as a political force, not revival.
Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy