That the Congress has come far away from its halcyon days, days when it was the ‘mover and shaker’ of Indian politics, is now well established. Year after year, election after election.
This was reiterated once again in the just-concluded Bihar assembly election where the Congress emerged as the weakling in the Mahagathbandhan, winning only 19 of 70 seats it contested.
Its inability to pull votes is well known; its leadership’s reluctance to do serious soul-searching is evident, and its stiff opposition and clampdown on any criticism from within the party were demonstrated not far too long ago.
If in doubt, ask the 23 signatories to the letter that sought a complete leadership overhaul in the party recently.
Nationally, Congress is still the principal opposition party, both numerically and perception wise. It has failed to win enough seats in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections to even have the status of Leader of Opposition, but since there isn’t any other competitor for the second slot, it by default becomes the principal opposition.
The problem is more entrenched in the states. Especially in those that have strong regional parties and where the contest is not a direct one between the Congress and the BJP.
Such states would primarily include Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and even Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi.
In Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Punjab, the competition so far has been bipolar, between a regional powerhouse and the Congress, though the scenario is fast changing with the emergence of BJP, especially in Odisha.
In states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, the competition is either between the BJP and the Congress with regional players taking smaller roles, or the Congress and regional parties.
Coming back to the states where the Congress and the BJP are both in the contest along with strong regional parties, the state politics has now shaped in such a manner that the regional parties end up requiring the support of one of the two national parties.
For example, The Shiv Sena and the NCP have taken Congress’s support in Maharashtra; the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has taken it in Jharkhand; the DMK in Tamil Nadu; the Left parties have announced an alliance with Congress for next year’s election in West Bengal; the National Conference and the PDP are most likely to join hands with Congress in future elections in J&K; the RJD formed an alliance with the Congress in Bihar; and in Uttar Pradesh, the SP joined hands with the Congress in 2017 states polls but it dumped the Congress in 2019 Lok Sabha polls to stitch coalition with the BSP having experienced Congress’s inability to win seats.
When results were announced, the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi could not even defend his citadel of Amethi.
For the regional parties, the Congress, of late, has become an albatross hanging across their necks. It is more of a necessary evil that they are dependent upon, not for votes, but primarily for security service that it provides.
Had it not been a concern, many of them would prefer to go solo or give Congress a limited number of seats to contest.
Today, to take on the Modi-Shah election machinery, a regional party not only needs funds and ground support but also requires a battery of top lawyers to pull it out of legal battles or to challenge an aggressive Centre when their governments are in threat.
The Congress cannot win seats but it has an army of top lawyers and it knows that regional parties need this army to survive the Centre’s onslaught.
It was largely because of the top lawyers that the Congress has that it was able to seek a midnight hearing of the Supreme Court during the political crisis in Karnataka, just after the JD(S) formed a post-poll alliance with it to form government in 2018.
It is Congress lawyers who have been defending the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government in the Supreme Court over the last one year. Whether it was the constitutional crisis triggered by Ajit Pawar’s siding with the BJP to form a government, or the recent cases surrounding actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the CBI’s role, it was the likes of Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi who have argued for Maharashtra in the top court.
When former J&K Chief Minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah was detained following the abrogation of Article 370 last August, it was again Congress leader and Supreme Court lawyer Kapil Sibal who fought the case in the top court.
In the Bihar assembly election, political observers have said the RJD gave Congress seats way above its punching ability. The result was, the Congress contested around 30 per cent seats in the Bihar assembly but won less than five per cent. It fielded candidates in 70 seats and won just 19.
This figure is lower even than its 2015 performance when it won 27 of the 41 seats it contested.
Analysis of the Bihar results suggests that Congress was evidently the weakest link in the Mahagathbandhan. Even the Left parties regained their ground and won 16 seats.
Had the Congress performed better (even just matched its 2015 figure), or the RJD contested in more seats, the results could have perhaps been different.
Incidentally, Kapil Sibal is one of the lawyers to represent Lalu Prasad, the RJD chief in courts. Sibal had argued his bail plea in the Supreme Court last year, and in a Jharkhand court in September this year.
Soon, the Congress and RJD announced their seat-sharing agreement in early October where Congress got 70 seats to contest. This was even though there was nothing to suggest that the Congress has regained its long lost foothold in Bihar and can win these many seats.
The RJD’s need for top lawyers can perhaps explain the numbers. Additionally, Lalu Prasad is currently jailed in Jharkhand, a state where the Congress is in power.
The trend suggests that as long as the Congress can offer service of its top lawyers to pull out its regional allies from legal battles, the regional parties will accommodate it (even though grudgingly) in their political formulations.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that both sides depend on to survive until a brighter day. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).