One of the more famous laws in political science was coined by French political scientist Maurice Duverger in 1954, who held that a first-past-the-post system will tend to produce two-party systems.
The idea is simple since first-past-the-post systems – where a candidate wins a seat simply by beating other candidates (and not having to win a majority of the votes) – punishes parties that place third (and below) by awarding them either very few or even no seats. Since FPTP is a “winner-takes-all” system, the votes a losing candidate receives find no voice in the political system. Thus all opposition votes will be incentivised to shift completely to the second placed party, since it would have the best chance of beating the leading party, and thus making their voice heard in the legislature.
Most Indian states follow Duverger’s law. However, the Gujarat Assembly election results on Thursday see a significant diversion. While the Bharatiya Janata Party is hegemonic, winning its sixth successive term in office, the Gujarati opposition vote is now split between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
AAP has nearly 13% of the vote while the Congress has a little more than 27%. In the previous Assembly election, the Congress had more than 41% of the vote – approximately the sum of the 2022 Congress and AAP vote share.
The result is, as the converse of Duverger’s law predicts, a massive haul for the BJP and almost none for third-place AAP. However, it is a sign as to how weak the Congress is that a significant chunk of the 2017 Congress support base was ready to take this risk and vote for a third party. The reason: it is clear that the Congress simply was unable to do its job as the opposition. Even though the party had done well in the 2017 Assembly elections, driven by anger against BJP’s policies such as the newly introduced Goods and Taxation regime, the party was unable to hold on to its flock. Around two dozen Congress MLAs elected in the previous poll ended up defecting to the ruling BJP.
“The Congress people will take your vote and then go to the BJP for money,” one angry Gujarati told Scroll.in. “Why should anyone vote for them?”
An even bleaker situation faces the party in Delhi. The Congress, under Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, was once a hegemon in the national capital, ruling Delhi for 15 years from 1998. However, when the results of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections were declared on Wednesday, they showed that the party managed to secure only 11.7% of the vote. It has only nine councillors out of 250. The city is now, for all intents and purposes, a two-party system with the AAP and the BJP forming its two poles.
The one bright spot for the Congress comes up in Himachal Pradesh. The small hill state cast more votes for the Congress than the incumbent BJP (although the difference is less than a percent of vote share). The Congress leads in 40 seats out of 68.
However, this would be cold comfort for the national Congress leadership since Himachal’s conditions are not replicable in other states. The state has, for three decades now, a tradition of voting out governments, with the Congress and the BJP taking turns at power. The last time a government came back to office was in 1985.
To add to this was anger at the ruling BJP over issues such as inflation. This benefited the Congress, given the small state has no other significant opposition party.
The Congress, as has been apparent now for some time, is faltering significantly as an electoral machine. As Gujarat makes clear, even if voters are angry with the government, they are increasingly reluctant to see the Congress as a challenger, with significant numbers preferring to bet on a newcomer such as the AAP.
The Congress has no plans or, in fact, ability to fix this.
The party’s main focus at the moment is its leader Rahul Gandhi’s march across India: the Bharat Jodo Yatra. However, the yatra is quite specifically not being billed as an electoral machine. In fact, the march made it a point to avoid poll-bound states like Gujarat.
To add to this is the fact that the Congress ideology seems to have little attraction. The post-1947 party, in fact, had little ideology to begin with and most voters voted for it using the clientelist logic of exchanging public goods and welfare in exchange for votes. This obviously makes little sense if the party is not in power. Moreover, what little ideological attraction it had – a big tent for all Indans – seems to have aged poorly in the age of sharp identity politics, either along lines of religion or language. And unlike AAP, which has sharply pushed a new language of welfare populism to target the poor, the Congress has been unable to capture any new ideological space.
To add to this lack of ideological attractiveness is a lack of national leaders. While both the BJP and AAP have faces in Modi and Kerjiwal, the Congress’ bid to push Rahul Gandhi has largely failed.
This is a sharp change for most of its history, where a national leader – Nehru or Indira Gandhi – acted as significant vote catchers. In fact, the few vote-catchers that the Congress has today are state satraps. This explains the rebellion by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in September, where he threatened mass resignation of MLAs if he were to be replaced by Sachin Pilot, chosen by the high command. What would have been a banal exercise of power by the high command in the age of Congress dominance ended up a victory for the state leader, Gehlot, given that the Congress is aware that without him, it would collapse in the state.
Unfortunately for the Congress, it is unclear how it could fix any of these problems. The Congress has tried to deal with a lack of ideological focus by concentrating on attacking hate politics during its Bharat Jodo Yatra. However, at least for now, it is having little electoral impact. A lack of media coverage, in fact, means that most Indians would simply be unaware of the Congress messaging in the first place.
A lack of funds means that the Congress ability to even sustain electoral campaigns is severely curtailed. In Gujarat, for example, the party was forced to conduct a low-key, door-to-door campaign. For the most part, even as Rahul Gandhi remains not very popular, there are no second-rung leaders the Congress can call upon who could fit the role of a Modi challenger.
As things stand, as a result, it is Gujarat and Delhi that will act as templates for the Congess’s future performance rather than Himachal. It is likely that the party will continue to weaken as India heads into national elections in 2024.