In the first week of November, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka were vacationing in the salubrious climate of Shimla. On November 11, a day after the scheduled announcement of results of elections in Bihar, he was to visit the golden dunes of Thar desert in Jaisalmer, in his mind, possibly, feeling like the victor of Patna.
Like the best laid plans of mice and politicians, Gandhi was forced to cancel the planned vacation to Jaisalmer because of an unexpected development — the Mahagathbandhan’s loss in the polls, primarily because of his party, the moribund Congress.
Gandhi’s pre-and-post poll schedule is a damning indictment of the Congress under the Gandhis. It is lazy, it is led by itinerant leaders who to-and-fro between elections and vacations, and it is turning out to be a big political liability for other parties willing to take on the BJP with hard-work.
There is a very simple explanation for the Mahagathbandhan’s loss in the Bihar polls: the Congress pulled it down. The Congress, which had contested 70 seats, won just 19 — a strike rate of 27 per cent. In contrast, the Left parties won 17 out of their share of the 29 in the alliance; and the RJD won 75 out of the 144 it contested, with a strike rate north of 53 per cent.
Simple number crunching would tell you that had the Congress performed at the average strike rate of the alliance — won around 35 seats, it would have been curtains for Nitish Kumar & Co.
The Congress’s contribution to the alliance wasn’t limited to its pathetic performance in the polls. By insisting on a larger share than it could handle, it forced two possible partners out of the Mahagathbandhan — the Hindustan Awami Morcha and the Vikasshseel Insan Party. Both these caste-based outfits were lapped up immediately by the BJP-led alliance and went on to win eight seats in the tight contest. As Dipankar Bhattacharya of the CPI (ML) was to rue later, the Congress should have been given no more than 50 seats. But, hindsight is a poor substitute for pre-event wisdom.
In three other states where bypolls were held simultaneously, the Congress was just pathetic. It lost eight seats out of eight in Gujarat, seven out of seven in Uttar Pradesh and 19 out of 28 in Madhya Pradesh. Most of these seats went to bypolls primarily because the incumbent Congress legislators resigned and joined the BJP. In essence, the Congress lost the constituencies it had won in the previous elections.
What does this tell us about the Congress?
The Congress, it is evident from the results of elections since 2013, is just a freeloader. In the past, it has pulled down its alliance partners almost everywhere — in Uttar Pradesh, in Maharashtra, in Jharkhand, in the northeast with a string of poor performances. Even in places it has won, Congress has allowed BJP to overturn the results of the elections without too much of a fight, like in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa, or managed to lose elections from a position of strength, like in Gujarat in 2017.
The problem with the Congress is that in spite of these losses and disasters, it has maintained the hubris of a prima donna well past the ability to draw crowds. By leveraging its so-called “national status”, it has repeatedly managed to wangle more seats in alliances, or claim a larger role for itself in politics.
But, the irrefutable fact is the Congress is now just a regional party. It is confined to just five states — Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. In all other states, it is either dead or in the final stages of its life. Even in the five states of north India where it is still alive, the credit primarily goes to two factors — a strong regional leader (Punjab), or the presence of a third force to dislodge the BJP.
Under the current leadership, there is absolutely no chance the Congress will regain ground. Its part-time leader is now mostly an extra at political events, eclipsed either by alliance partners or a strong regional leader, whom nobody cares to take seriously. Who would when the leaders are always in a haste to go on a holiday!
The Bihar result reinforces the recurring moral of every election: the Congress needs to be left out of alliances led by regional partners, or, at best, be treated like a small outfit and allotted just a handful of seats.
In a few months, the next big political fight would take place in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Unwilling to learn from its defeat, and the ability to pull down its alliance partners, the Congress would seek a bigger share of seats than it deserves. It would be tragic if the potential partners do not learn from their mistakes and do not put Congress in its place, which, basically, is the bin of history.
The anti-BJP coalition also needs to look beyond the Congress for the 2024 elections. The Congress has outlived its utility in Indian politics and doesn’t have any future, at least not under the Gandhis. The irony of this tragicomedy is that even its Othello — the prince of Congress — wouldn’t mind the responsibility that usually gets thrust on him. In all likelihood, he would rather be in the hills of Shimla than the battlefield of Bihar.