The Congress victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh earlier this month have revived its hopes of preventing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s return to power in 2019. But the Congress won’t have it easy. If it aims to be the leader of a coalition government, it should set itself a target of at least 145 seats, the number it won in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

In 2009, the Congress won 206 seats, but in 2014 was reduced to a paltry 44. Worse, it seemed headed for a meltdown as it lost one state after another in subsequent Assembly elections. Its recent victories have staved off its existential crisis – but have not resolved it. This is because even as the Congress becomes a bit surefooted in North India, it has encountered fresh problems in the South.

Southern challenge

Take undivided Andhra Pradesh, which gave the Congress 29 seats in 2004 and 33 in 2009. Then in 2013, the Congress government approved the formation of new state of Telangana, which would be carved out of the state of Andhra Pradesh. In the elections the next year, the Congress bled seats. It drew a blank in Andhra Pradesh and won two seats in what would soon be Telangana. It polled just 2.84% of the votes in Andhra Pradesh in 2014, though it had a respectable 24.48% in Telangana. The recent Telangana Assembly election shows the Congress is still stuck in that situation.

Psephologists will warn against using the Assembly poll results to predict the Lok Sabha elections, which were held simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh in 2014. But the numbers tell a story. In 2014, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi got 34.67% of the votes in the general election and around 1% less in the Assembly election. In the recent state election, the party’s vote share ballooned to 46.7%.

The Congress received 24.48% of the votes in Telangana in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and 25% in the Assembly election. The 25% rose to 28.4% in December 2018, but the party’s hope of improving its fortunes through an alliance with Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party was dashed. A major turnaround for the Congress in 2019 is unlikely.

Naidu’s opposition to the formation of Telangana was one reason for the alliance failing to win over voters. But it is also an unnatural alliance. The Congress is dominated by Reddys, while the Telugu Desam Party is controlled by the Kamma community. For three decades, these two wealthy social groups have been locked in a bitter competition for power. Their inability to pull together is why the Telugu Desam Party’s vote share declined to 3.5% in Telangana, down from 14.7% in 2014.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Reddys switched their loyalty to Jaganmohan Reddy after he walked out of the Congress ahead of the last election to float the YSR Congress Party. With them went most of the Congress’ traditional voters. It is likely the Congress will again draw a blank in the state in 2019.

Now, even the Telugu Desam Party’s usefulness for the Congress in forming a government at the Centre is in doubt. This is largely because the entry of Telugu film star Pawan Kalyan’s Janasena Party into the 2019 electoral fray is likely to upset previous calculations. He represents the political aspirations of the Kapus, who, unlike the Reddys and the Kammas, are numerous, forming nearly 27% of the state’s population.

The Congress has high hopes in Karnataka, which contributed nine seats to its kitty of 44 in 2014. The party’s alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) will thwart the BJP from winning the 17 seats it did in 2014. But complications will arise in seat-sharing. The Congress is the strongest in South Karnataka, which is also its ally’s turf. It is from here that the Janata Dal (Secular) has been winning two or three seats and the Congress roughly half its tally in the state since 2004. Aware of the Congress’ desperation to stall the BJP in 2019, the Janata Dal (Secular) will demand more seats than it can possibly win on its own.

In Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader MK Stalin recently asked the Opposition to choose Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate in 2019. But he will not be so largehearted in allocating seats to the Congress in Tamil Nadu, where it had 10 MPs in 2004, its best score yet. It is unlikely the grand old party will better that tally.

Of the 129 seats in the five southern states, the Congress won 47 in 2004, 60 in 2009 and 19 in 2014. To near its 2004 mark, Kerala is crucial for the Congress. This is perhaps why, like the BJP, it has opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling to allow women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple – an emotive issue for a section of the state’s Hindus. The Congress drew a blank in Kerala in 2004, took 13 seats in 2009, and eight in 2014. Only a repeat of the 2009 result will ensure the gap between the party’s 2004 tally and its total score in 2019 is not duly large.

Northern revival

After all, there is a limit to how much the Congress’ expected gains in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – which together account for 65 Lok Sabha seats – can cover the losses it might suffer elsewhere. Take Uttar Pradesh, where the party won nine seats in 2004, 21 in 2009 and just two in 2014. The Congress’ partial revival in the North has heightened the anxieties of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. If they allow the Congress elbow room, they will be squeezed.

Should the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party enter into an alliance, they would prefer that the Congress fight on its own, offering it the only concession of not fielding candidates in Amethi and Rae Bareli, which Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi represent. Their logic is that the Congress can garner some votes of the Brahmins, who tend to flock to the BJP when the grand old party plays second fiddle to parties representing the lower castes. In such a scenario, the Congress is unlikely to win nine Uttar Pradesh seats as it did in 2004.

In Bihar, the Congress has not won more than three seats since 2004, though it has been part of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance, which might widen to include the communist parties in 2019. Still, any increase for the Congress will be marginal.

In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee does not want a resurgent Congress as it diminishes her chances of becoming prime minister. Since the Congress cannot bank upon Banerjee’s generosity, it should ensure that it does not lose Bahrampur, Jangipur, Maldah North and Maldah South seats which it has won without fail since 2004.

In 2009, the Congress won 17 of the 25 seats it fought in Maharashtra, its best strike rate since 2004. The party has to divide the state’s 48 seats with its old ally, the Nationalist Congress Party. An alliance caps a party’s growth but the Congress must depend on allies to boost its tally in states that have 21 seats or more. Only in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan can the party afford to go it alone.

In 2004, these states, including undivided Andhra Pradesh, accounted for 420 seats, of which the Congress bagged 100. Given the Congress’ plight in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha – where the Biju Janata Dal won 20 of the 21 seats in 2014 and the BJP the other – its hope of reaching the 100-mark depends on performing exceptionally in the four states where it contests without allies.

Small margins

It also has to maximise gains in the states and Union Territories with 1-10 seats that together account for 51 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress won 27 of these seats in 2004. It has not won Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Tripura, Nagaland and Sikkim since 2004. Together, they account for five seats. Another five seats for the party have been jeopardised by Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh choosing non-Congress governments over the past few years.

For this reason, the Congress will have to focus on wresting as many seats as possible from the BJP in Haryana (10 seats), Uttarakhand (five), Himachal Pradesh (four) and Goa (two), besides winning the single-seat Union Territories. In 2014, the Congress lost both seats in the Jammu region, which it had won in 2004 and 2009. Can it overcome the communal polarisation to triumph here in 2019?

Worryingly for the Congress, Delhi’s politics has changed since 2004, when it won six seats. It is now the Aam Aadmi Party’s turf. The Congress is said to have asked AAP for three seats in Delhi. In return, the Aam Aadmi Party has demanded the four seats it won in Punjab in 2014. If the deal is stitched up, the Congress will get to contest nine seats in Punjab, where it won two in 2004, eight in 2009 and eight in 2014.

Punjab is in the category of states that have between 11 and 20 seats. In 2004, these states accounted for 72 seats (Telangana’s share will take the total to 89 in 2019). Of these, the Congress won only 18 in 2004, including the nine seats in Assam.

The Congress is now on a crumbling wicket in Assam because of the citizenship controversy. It will hope to retain two of the three seats it won in 2014, courtesy its dynasts, Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev, who won Kaliabor and Silchar the last time around. In Jharkhand, the alliance system will likely leave the Congress contesting only four of the 14 seats, two less than it won in 2004.

In 2004, the Congress’ 145 seats represented 53.3% of the Lok Sabha majority of 272. In 2019, it might just scrape home with even 120 seats, or 44.4% of the majority, depending on how well its allies do. Anything less, say 110 seats, will allow the regional satraps to demand the prime ministership. Indeed, to make Rahul Gandhi prime minister, the Congress needs to go seat by seat to identify the ones it has a fair chance of winning.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.