People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 21

May 31, 2009




A Revival For The Congress?


THIS election handed over an unambiguously positive verdict for the Congress at a time when the party least expected it. The Congress went into this election with three handicaps: it was an incumbent government nervous about what it had to show by way of achievement, its allies were fewer and weaker than in 2004, and it was perceived as being on the backfoot on the question of its prime ministerial candidate.


Eventually, the Congress won 206 seats, crossing the 200-seat threshold for the first time since 1991. It performed well in states that it was expected to dominate, and also did better than expected in many others, where it was considered too weak to make a recovery. Though there was nothing like a national wave, strong or mild, there appeared to be a nationwide trend working to the Congress� advantage.


A close look at the vote shares and vote changes suggests that initial reactions may have overestimated the Congress gains. Despite boosting its tally by an impressive 61 seats, the Congress did this by increasing its vote share by a mere two percentage points from 2004. Overall, it won 28.6 per cent of the vote, almost identical to its vote share in 1999, when the National Democratic Alliance triumphed.


In the last three elections, the seat/vote �multiplier� (proportion of seats won divided by proportion of votes) for the Congress has gone up from 0.74 in 1999 to 1.01 in 2004 and to 1.34 in 2009. To put it differently, every one per cent of the vote gave the Congress four seats in 1999, 5.5 seats in 2004 and 7.2 seats in this election.


Now, a higher multiplier is not just plain luck. Clearly, the Congress succeeded in focusing its energies in key battlegrounds such as Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Rajasthan and obtained disproportionate rewards for its votes. At the same time, a higher multiplier should not be confused with an electoral wave representing a broad change in the public mood, or a national swing.


An analysis of the state-wise picture bears this out. The swing in favour of the Congress was far from uniform. Among the major states, it varied from a loss of 7.6 percentage points in vote share in Orissa to a gain of 11 percentage points in Punjab.


But such was the Congress� fortune this time, that even losses translated into victories. Thanks to the break-up of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Biju Janata Dal alliance in Orissa, the Congress was able to pick up four extra seats. In Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the loss in the Congress� vote was more than offset by the entry of crucial players such as the Praja Rajyam Party and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena; these parties allowed the Congress to add to its tally of seats. On the other hand, in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, a moderate positive swing brought handsome gains for the party in terms of seats. Parties should not expect such a boon every time.


The Congress� vote share in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ought to please the party most. In Uttar Pradesh, the votes it received were concentrated in some pockets, thus giving it disproportionate rewards. But even so, a vote share of 18 per cent provides it with a launching pad for reviving the party in the state. The journey of revival in Bihar is bound to be tougher than in Uttar Pradesh, but Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad may have done the Congress a favour in Bihar by forcing them to make an attempt.


In Tamilnadu and West Bengal, the Congress proved a useful secondary partner for its bigger allies, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Trinamool Congress. A revival in the electoral fortunes of the party has also been accompanied by a subtle shift in the social profile of its voters. By the late 1990s, the Congress had become a party whose support base was a mirror image of its opponent in different parts of the country. The party did not have a vote of its own and was excessively dependent upon the residual support it got from the marginal sections of society.


In the last election, the Congress regained something of its famous �rainbow coalition.� This election takes this trend a step further. The stigma attached to voting for the Congress among a section of Muslims and Sikhs is definitely over.


The Congress has improved its standing among the urban middle classes and educated voters. It has done so while largely retaining the �bottom of the pyramid� that constitutes its core voting bloc. This recovery is still very partial, especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Congress has been unable to access the bottom of the social pyramid. Also, there are many states where the Congress is in no position to take on the BJP. The Congress cannot outgrow its allies in other parts of the country, at least not yet. But to say this is to imply that the party has not yet peaked. The

Congress still has a lot of room to grow.


(Courtesy: The Hindu, May 26, 2009)