Not End of Congress: Poll Results Reveal 4 Negatives, 1 Positive
Excessive focus on ‘leadership’ has led to lack of nuance in understanding Congress’ strengths and weaknesses.
The results of the Assembly elections in Bihar and by-elections in 11 states have sparked a debate, both about the Congress party and within it.
The results are being seen as part of a larger crisis for the Congress as they come at a juncture when the party is undergoing an internal strife, with many leaders like Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram raising concerns about the state of affairs in the party.
Several observers – like Vir Sanghvi in an article for NDTV – have specifically blamed former party chief Rahul Gandhi for the defeat.
While the results are a setback for the Congress, it is important to take a broader view of the outcome without drawing simplistic conclusions.
The results in Bihar and the by-elections revealed four weaknesses of the Congress:
- Weakness within an alliance
- Weakness against the BJP
- Weakness as an Opposition to regional parties
- Drifting away of Muslims
And one strength as well in certain pockets of resilience.
Weakness Within an Alliance: Case of Bihar
Strike Rate Question
The one data point that most observers have pointed out while speaking of the Congress' weakness is its poor strike rate of 27 percent against 52 of the RJD, 63 percent of CPI-ML, 50 percent of the CPI(M) and 33 percent of the CPI.
While all the parties except the CPI-ML performed poorly in contests against the BJP, in contests against the JD(U), it was only the Congress that performed poorly.
According to data compiled by political analyst Amitabh Tiwari, all the MGB constituents won 65-70 percent of their contests against JD(U) but the Congress could win only about 36 percent.
The explanation given by many Congress supporters is that many of the seats that the party contested were known NDA strongholds.
In a detailed data analysis in Hindustan Times, Roshan Kishore and Vijdan Kawoosa argue Congress' underperformance in Bihar is a "red herring" and that the party in fact scored its second best tally and strike rate since 2005, the best being in 2015.
The real problem lies in another data point: vote transfer.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, in seats contested by RJD, 82 percent "traditional Congress voters" and 90 percent "traditional RJD voters" voted for the Mahagathbandhan. But in seats contested by the Congress, 84 percent "traditional Congress voters" and 82 percent "traditional RJD voters" voted for the Mahagathbandhan. So this means that the real leakage was from a section of RJD voters in seats contested by Congress.
The reason for this could be that the Congress in Bihar has a different base from the RJD or CPI-ML.
The RJD and CPI-ML have complementary bases – the former among Yadavs and Muslims and the latter among Yadavs, Dalits and a section of non-Yadav OBCs in the areas of its influence. Both have stood against the domination of upper castes.
This is why the Mahagathbandhan did best in the Bhojpur region, where both RJD and CPI-ML are strong.
The Congress, on the other hand, is an upper caste-dominated party, therefore it is possible that a section of RJD and maybe even CPI-ML voters may not have shifted to the Congress. As many as 41 percent of the Congress candidates were from upper castes.
41% of Congress candidates are upper caste. It is possible that they may have failed to inspire some of the Mahagathbandhan’s supporters.
It's not surprising that the other Mahagathbandhan party with a low strike rate – the CPI – is also known to be dominated by poorer upper castes.
Conversely, it is also possible that Congress' presence in such an alliance may have hindered its capacity to win over upper castes disgruntled with the NDA, who may have then shifted to the LJP. This could also be due to the weakness of Congress candidates in particular seats.
The main problem, therefore, becomes the Congress' failure to win over upper castes.
Some would say that Congress might be more compatible in an alliance with a party like JD(U), which has a more harmonious equation with upper castes.
In fact, the representation of both upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs has been higher in Congress rule and then under Nitish Kumar but fell during the RJD years.
Weakness Against the BJP
A major aspect of not just Bihar but also the bypoll defeats, was the Congress' weakness in seats where it is the main rival of the BJP.
- BJP won 80 percent of its direct contests against Congress in Bihar.
- In Gujarat, BJP won all 8 seats and the Congress was its main rival.
- In Madhya Pradesh, BJP won 19 out of 28, a winning percentage of 68.
- In Karnataka, BJP won both its seats, defeating the Congress and the JD(S).
- In Manipur, BJP won 4 out of 5 seats and Congress failed to open its account.
- The only places where Congress did well in direct contests against BJP were a seat each in Haryana, Jharkhand and Chhattissgarh.
- In comparison to the Congress, regional parties fared better in countering the BJP in their respective states – be it the RJD or CPI-ML in Bihar, BJD in Odisha and to a lesser extent SP in Uttar Pradesh.
Weakness as an Opposition to Regional Parties
The other feature in these elections was the Congress' weakness in states where it was the main Opposition to a ruling regional party.
- In Telangana, the BJP managed to win the Dubbak seat, defeating the TRS and relegating Congress to third position.
- The Congress came third in both the seats in Odisha, while BJP solidified its position as the main Opposition in the state.
Drifting Away of Muslims
Soon after the Bihar results, several Congress leaders began openly blaming Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen for its defeat. The AIMIM won 5 seats in Seemanchal, a region where the RJD is traditionally weak due to a lower concentration of Yadavs and it is the Congress which was supposed to deliver for the alliance.
But the party lost even from a bastion like Amour, where six-term Congress MLA Abdul Jalil Mastan came third.
The AIMIM's success in Seemanchal was largely due to anti-incumbency against Congress and JD(U) MLAs and the Mahagathbandhan's silence on the CAA during the campaign. It must be remembered that Bihar witnessed the highest number protests against the CAA.
It’s not just Seemanchal. The drift of Muslims away from Congress was visible in some of the seats in Gujarat, Manipur and UP as well.
But the Muslims' drift from the Congress wasn't particular to Seemanchal.
In Gujarat, Congress lost the Abdasa seat in Kutch because a large number of Muslims picked Independent candidate Hanif Padyar instead of Shantilal Senghani of the Congress. Padyar got 18 percent votes, Senghani 24 percent.
In Manipur's Muslim dominated Lilong seat, which used to be a Congress bastion once, the party got just 0.45 percent votes. The seat was won by Independent candidate Y Antas Khan.
In Uttar Pradesh's Naugawan Sadat, which has a sizable proportion of Muslims, especially Shias, the Congress managed to get only 2 percent votes. The SP's Javed Abbas emerged as the main challenger to the BJP winning 34 percent votes against the latter's 41 percent. In Bulandshahr, it was the BSP's Mohammad Yunus who emerged as the main challenger, getting 33 percent votes. The SP hadn't contested this seat.
So these results do indicate that Muslim voters don't seem very confident about the Congress.
Positive: Pockets of Resilience
The results also reveal pockets of resilience of the Congress and these may have important lessons for the party.
MP’s Agar: Congress Wins Sangh Bastion
One seat in all the bypolls in which the Congress' win is most significant is Agar in Dewas district.
This seat used to be a Jan Sangh bastion and then became a BJP bastion. The party won this seat only twice out of 15 elections held since Independence.
The seat was won by Congress candidate Vipin Wankhede, a former state NSUI president.
The win in Agar shows that the Congress can win over even a completely solid BJP seat if it works hard and plays its cards right.
Valmiki Nagar: 55,000 Extra Congress Voters
Though Congress lost the bypoll for the Valmiki Nagar Lok Sabha seat, there are a few data points from the result that may give some solace to the party.
The Congress secured 36 percent votes, just about two two percentage points below the victorious JD(U). This was a significant jump of around 12 percentage points since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
What’s also significant is that in the Assembly polls, the Mahagathbandhan secured 30.5 percent votes in the six Assembly segments that fall under the Valmiki Nagar Lok Sabha seat. This means that the Congress secured around 5.5 percentage points more votes at the Lok Sabha level than the Mahagathbandhan did at the Assembly level.
In Valmiki Nagar, Congress got over 55,000 more votes at the Lok Sabha level than the MGB got at the Assembly level.
This would mean that at least 55,000 voters who chose NDA or other parties at the Assembly level picked the Congress at the Lok Sabha level. As this is a seat that the Mahagathbandhan has never won, this is not a small achievement for the Congress.
There are several other places where the Congress' resilience was quite evident.
Win in Jogi and Scindia Turf
In Chhattisgarh, the party managed to wrest the Marwahi seat that was vacated following the death of Janata Congress Chhattisgarh founder Ajit Jogi.
The Congress secured 56 percent votes against the BJP's 31. The win is particularly significant as Ajit Jogi's son had announced his support for BJP in the seat.
In Madhya Pradesh too, the Congress managed to hold its own in several seats. It inflicted losses on turncoat Jyotiraditya Scindia in several seats in his area of influence, especially Morena district.
Hoodas Hold Ground
Then in Haryana's Baroda, Congress won the seat despite fielding a relatively lesser known candidate against BJP nominee – wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt.
In Jharkhand too, the Congress and its alliance partner JMM won both the seats, defeating the BJP.
These successes also reveal the importance of strong regional leaders like Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and the Hoodas in Haryana. In Baroda for example, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Deepender Hooda treated it like a personal battle and campaigned extensively for Congress candidate Induraj Narwal.
Central UP and Patidar Pockets in Gujarat
The partial success in MP's Chambal area is also important as the Congress does seem to be holding ground due to support of Dalits in an area where atrocities against them are high.
Even in Uttar Pradesh, the party did comparatively better in the two central UP seats of Bangermau and Ghatampur. It came second in both these seats, indicating that in central UP, the party has a strong chance of emerging as the main Opposition.
Big picture lesson for Congress is that it can do well in places where it has groomed a strong regional leadership and where it has won over the support of key caste groups.
In Gujarat too, the party gave a good fight in Karjan in Vadodara district and Morbi in Saurashtra region, both of which have a high proportion of Patidar voters. It lost by over 15 percentage points in all the other 6 seats.
The big picture lesson for the party from the Bihar results as well as the bypolls is that the party can do well in places where it has groomed a strong regional leadership and also where it has won over the support of key caste groups.
In places like Marwahi and Baroda, both factors seemed to work in Congress' favour.
The Congress’ win in MP’s Agar and Jharkhand’s Bermo and respectable showing in the Valmiki Nagar seat indicates that the Congress can potentially win even upper caste support.
Both the negative and positive aspects of the results show that the focus of analysis of the Congress’ performance needs to be inverted – there’s too much discussion on what’s happening at the top and not enough about ground realities.
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