Congress: Down but Not Out

Conversations from ground zero of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections reveal a startling truth, the Congress party may have been on the downslide for some time now but any attempt to dismiss it completely would be imprudent
Abeer Kapoor Delhi

“Let me be frank with you, the organisational capacity is at a bare minimum, when the party was fighting the elections on its own, at least then there was a chance of revival, we could have given our party cadre some responsibility, but in this alliance we have been reduced to a junior partner. This the collapse of the Congress system: we bring no swing in vote share, and there is little that the Indian National Congress is bringing to the alliance. One may say that this alliance is a liability,” said a Congressman in one of the many cafes that dot Lucknow’s Hazratganj, expressing his disappointment at the fact that after the seat-sharing was announced many partymen hopeful for tickets found themselves sidelined. Without mincing any words he ended his analysis by saying, “The alliance is not between the Congress Party and the Samajwadi Party, but between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi.”

The Indian National Congress (INC) has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh since 1989. This is a fact of life that the Congress managed to spin into a sales pitch during the early parts of its campaign to take back India’s most populous state. The slogan ’27 saal UP behaal’ promised a return to growth and development if India’s grand old party was to be returned to power. There were many within the party who found this posturing an indication of the party’s deep-seated denial of its state of affairs. Offering his thoughts on the poll slogan, a veteran Congressman had then said, “It’s not the State that has been behaal for 27 years, it’s the Congress Party, which has been slowly decaying.” 

The rising levels of fatalism within the party leadership had not evaporated even after the Congress decided to forge a pre-poll alliance with the ruling Samajwadi Party. The consensus on the ground is that the Congress brings nothing to the table and doesn’t even elicit a response from the general public: It is only the young Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav who is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. “If someone is to benefit from this alliance it is the Congress Party,” said a shopkeeper in Lucknow, “Akhilesh made a mistake when he tied-up with them, none of their leaders is a popular or known face in the State, even if they wanted to they can’t attract a crowd” he continued. The prevailing feeling is that with Rahul Gandhi’s image in tatters,he had no option but to piggyback on Akhilesh’s popularity. In Allahabad, after the impressive combined road show, Pankaj Kumar, a Professor at the Political Science Department in Allahabad University said, “The Congress Party still carries the weight of the allegations of corruption from UPA II, that may be an albatross around its neck. It has not been able to shed that image. They have no real vote, there is also no guarantee that its last polled vote share of eleven percent will be retained.” 

The current crisis that has gripped the party-is a topic that has merited extensive analysis-can be traced back to 2014. In UP however, the existential crisis of the party predates the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP.  After 1989, when they secured 29 percent vote share and 94 seats, their fortunes have only plummeted. Old time loyalists moved to the BJP and the BSP. The fractured minority vote deserted them. In twenty years their share of the pie has fallen to a measly 11 percent that they secured in 2012. Many Samajwadi Party workers and leaders still believe that in the seat-sharing allocation the INC has got more seats than they deserve, while others say that getting them onboard was a mistake in itself. “In some villages you will still find some old congressi people, but they can’t assemble a crowd or bring votes, we hope they don’t hamper our chances,” said a Samajwadi Party worker who is still skeptical about Rahul Gandhi’s mythical vote pulling power.

Both opposition parties, the BJP and the BSP have flayed the ruling party for getting into an alliance with the moribund Congress, calling it a sign of weakness. “The alliance is an outcome of insecurity on the part of the SP, if they were so sure of winning what was the need? They did this because they were greedy to get the minority vote,” said Alok Awasthi, a member of the BJP’s media cell in Lucknow. The Congress, according to many, is a spent force: unable to shed the tag of corruption and fill the vacuum of credible leadership, the party is still where it was in 2014. 

In Sultanpur, BSP workers from Ghaziabad, wait at a petrol pump wearing the party’s traditionally blue caps as their car is refuelled. One of them says, “The Congress has no base here, or else where as a matter of fact. It is a dead party, its contesting or not contesting will not make a difference to the result. It’s slowly even leaving national politics. This is only a sign of desperation, it will not amount to much.” On the ground, seats where despite the alliance being struck Congress Leaders who thought they had a chance to win, have continued to fight as independents, but there are other areas where the alliance has been working seamlessly. Only if this synergy is replicated in large swathes could this be a winning combination. 

Outside the popular electoral pitstop of Bhatoi that lies en route from Allahabad to Lucknow, the bus used in the road show of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, stood parked on the side waiting to be driven back to the capital. Remarking on the huge crowd that the rally witnessed, a journalist following the alliance closely said, “In the first few rallies in Agra and Lucknow, the support for Rahul was very limited, lost in the in the red and green of the Samajwadi Party. Now, little by little you see the Congress flags coming out in larger numbers, and the support swelling.” 

“Seeing us [Akhilesh and I] come together Narendra Modi is scared,” said Rahul Gandhi at the end of the road show and every speech that he gave thereafter. Other than the security personnel, four young and enthusiastic Samajwadi Party (SP) workers, of the hundreds that have come from all over the country to support the re-election bid of Akhilesh Yadav, stand next to the bus. As it comes to life, the big burly security men wave goodbye. The four of them wait till the bus is engulfed in the darkness, one pulls out his phone and says, “I must tell CM Sir that the bus has left.” The rest animatedly discuss the size and strength of the road show that went through three Assembly seats of Allahabad City. It was so large, they say, that they were unable to finish the route due to imposition of the code of conduct at 5pm. “We will win and with full majority, we are winning on the back of Akhilesh Yadav’s work as Chief Minister, and his popularity,” says Harsh, a heavily built mannish-boy, around 25, who is dressed in the customary white kurta. The conversation veers towards the need of the alliance and the role that the Congress plays in it; if Yadav was popular enough to win the election by himself what was the need? They all chime in one by one, “During the family feud and after it, the minority community was unsure as to whether the SP would come out as a whole and be strong enough to beat the BJP. The fear was that their vote would shift to the BSP. The Congress and our minority vote combined is enough to sway a considerable portion of the community towards us. We did it to consolidate the vote.” 

“The roadshow was proof enough to show what sort of support we manage to drum-up and the popularity of both the leaders,” continues Harsh. The alliance rath went through parts of the city which were minority dominant, wooing the vote they struck the alliance for. The large crowd that followed the bus piqued people’s enthusiasm and curiosity, they peaked from windows, women came out on the street to watch the bus. According to the four boys the show of strength was enough to know that alliance was working and doing what it set out to do.However, they reiterate that the alliance was done on their terms rather than on the Congress’, and the SP is the force behind the entire campaigning, “We gave them 105 seats, then took back 25, humne unko ragad diya (we were tough with them) now they are contesting around 85,” says Ajay, whose tone could only be described as verbal flexing, standing next to Harsh. As they got into the car, Ajay looked back and said, “We will get them forty seats, but they will get us two hundred.” 

“The Congress is fighting 105 seats, that means one in every four seats, and out of the 105, the SP has fielded candidates in 20-25 seats. How many remaining? 80-85, and in those there are 31 reserved seats: one in every 2.5 reserved seats are being fought by the party,” said a journalist in Lucknow’s historic coffee house. He then said that while the number of seats given were higher than they deserved, but if the Congress did not have bargaining power it would not have been given these many seats. 

In the words of B.K Tiwari, head of department of Political Science at Lucknow University, “The Congress historically has been the party of the Brahmins, Dalits and the Muslims, at the national level they are their party and the communities do vote for them.” The party has tried to recreate this old combination, or at least has attempted to field winnable candidates. The presence of the Congress also opens up the path for other castes to join in with the alliance, which in the face of the anti-incumbency faced by the SP might have not otherwise had the support of. “There is seething anger amongst the Brahman youth in the state against the Yadavs, especially regarding the staff selection process,” said a Congress leader, “we could have gotten that vote and we are expecting the Brahmins to come along with us,” he continued. What might help the party along the way is the infighting in other parties. 

The BJP in Uttar Pradesh, has the support of a large thakur lobby with leaders such as Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath, who are tall leaders from the community. In many seats, where the BJP has fielded a thakur, the Congress has fielded a Brahmin. In Tiloi seat in Amethi, the Congress has fielded Vinod Kumar Mishra against BJP’s Mayankeshwar Singh. According to those in the village half of the Brahmins and the Muslim put together would be enough to push Mishra into the lead. The Congress is challenging the given order that the Hindu vote is a monolith and falls together. If the Congress is successful in pulling some of the ‘savarn’  then the BJP’s rainbow coalition might come apart. At the same time, under the leadership of PL Punia and other leaders the Congress is working very hard to ensure that they win the thirty-one reserved seats, which have rarely ever gone to the BSP: the non-Jatav vote becomes enough to topple the bahujan candidates in these seats. 

Manzoor is a researcher at the Giri Institute of Development Studies, he has been analysing voting behaviour of the Muslims in the run up to the UP elections, and at the same time breaking apart the voting trends from the previous elections. “The Congress is interesting, in the last elections it came second in nearly forty seats to both the SP and BSP. If this trend continues then these seats might be won easily.” At the same time Manzoor is convinced that the Muslim and the Yadav vote has been divided in many regions, and despite all the efforts on the part of the alliance fractures are appearing in the voting patterns. However, according to a Jat leader,members of the minority community, and other castes they silently might have been voting for the Grand Old Party.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2017