Will the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party contest the upcoming general election together in Delhi?

This question has occupied political observers for months now even though both parties have maintained that they will contest separately. Since both parties claim to be working to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party from returning to power, the observers ask, would it not help their shared cause to fight together? For a Congress-AAP alliance is likely to consolidate the anti-BJP vote. Polling data seems to support this contention.

Would such an alliance be mutually beneficial though? Political observers are divided. Some contend the Congress in particular would perform better by going it alone while others think contesting together would benefit both parties.

“AAP would be a liability for the Congress rather than an asset since AAP is no more the first choice of Delhi’s voters,” argued Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Professor Pradip Datta, who teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, disagreed. “The BJP can certainly hope to do better than it would if the Congress and AAP were in an alliance,” he said.

What the parties say

On January 18, Delhi minister Gopal Rai claimed AAP had reached out to the Congress to discuss the possibility of a partnership but found the grand old party “steeped in arrogance”.

That AAP is yet to declare candidates for the election, however, has triggered speculation that it is still hoping for an alliance. But AAP national secretary Pankaj Gupta insisted, “From our end, we have made it clear.”

The party’s spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj also said there was “no possibility” of an alliance with the Congress. “There is a big chunk of people who do not want the BJP to come back,” the legislator said. “These people will vote for the party which they think can defeat the BJP. If they think it is AAP, then they will vote for us.”

On the other hand, according to Hindustan Times, Delhi Congress chief Sheila Dikshit declared on February 3 that her party would contest all seven of Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats on its own and ruled out any possibility of an alliance with AAP.

“We will contest all seven seats ourselves,” the former chief minister was quoted as saying by the daily. “A lot of names are there but we need winnable candidates. There will be some old faces, some new ones and some former MLAs.”

A senior Congress leader who asked not to be named, however, told Scroll.in that the party was yet to take a decision. “The Delhi Congress thinks it is better to go alone,” he said. “Immediately after the parliamentary election, there will be Assembly election in Delhi, so it does not make sense to tie up with AAP. But the final decision will be taken by the national leadership.”

What the data shows

Polling data from the last five years shows how the fortunes of AAP and the Congress have changed in Delhi – and how they are likely to fare if they contest the election together, and separately.

AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, fought its first election in 2013, in Delhi. The party delivered a stunning performance, helping oust the Congress under Dikshit after 15 years in office. The party won 29 of the 70 Assembly seats. The BJP won more seats but failed to cobble together a coalition. In the end, AAP formed a minority government with the Congress’s support. The arrangement was riven with disagreements, however, leading Kejriwal to quit after just 49 days. The move was seen as a key reason for AAP’s lacklustre performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Though vote shares for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections are not exactly comparable, the voting trend of the last three elections makes it clear that AAP’s popularity has only grown, while the Congress’s has declined. The BJP’s support has remained largely stable, increasing in the 2014 election, when the “Modi wave” led to the party’s vote share rising across North India.

According to a study conducted for Lokniti, a research programme, by Professor Biswajit Mohanty of the Delhi University, a significant section of the Congress’s upper caste voters shifted to the BJP in the 2013 Assembly election and the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Mohanty’s study was published in 2014, before AAP registered a landslide victory in 2015.

The Congress also lost much of its Sikh vote to the BJP in 2014 and the Dalit vote to AAP. The Other Backward Classes vote, meanwhile, shifted partly to the BJP and partly to AAP. By the 2015 election, the Congress retained substantial support among only the Muslims. But even then a section of the community went with AAP.

Analysing the data on the basis of the economic status of Delhi’s voters, Mohanty found that in 2014, the BJP won support from large sections of upper, middle and lower classes compared to 2013. The Congress’s vote share among all three classes fell, while AAP saw a slight increase in support among upper and middle classes but a large swing in its favour among lower classes.

The study concluded that the BJP gained more votes in 2014 not only because of the strong “anti-Congress sentiment” but also because of the mistakes made by AAP. “AAP’s Lok Sabha election strategy faltered on too many counts, creating doubts in the minds of voters about the party’s anti-corruption plank and its seriousness to address the issues of Delhi,” it stated.

In spite of losing convincingly to the BJP in 2014, AAP swept the 2015 state election, winning 67 of the 70 seats. The party took 54% of the total vote, reducing the Congress to a measly 9%. The BJP managed to win 32% of the vote but it was less than what the party had won the previous year.

By 2017, however, AAP’s massive victory appeared a distant memory. A crushing defeat to the Congress in the Punjab election despite going all out to win the state, and constant squabbling with the Narendra Modi government, dented the party’s image as a political force.

This showed in the Delhi municipal polls later that year: the BJP comfortably won all three municipal corporations, with AAP battling the Congress for second position. The result was taken to indicate the Congress was regaining voters who had moved to AAP. The caveat applies, though, that voting in municipal polls is usually informed by very different sentiments than in Assembly or Lok Sabha elections.

Given these trends, would AAP and the Congress be able to hold off the BJP if they join forces?

What are their prospects?

Rai argued that the Congress is now in a position to take on the BJP on its own. “The return of Sheila Dikshit as the Congress chief seems to be a calculated political risk,” he said. “It has the potential to unify the warring factions of the party and bring back disenchanted supporters.”

It is to the Congress’s advantage, Rai added, that the BJP’s vote share in Delhi dropped by more than 12% from 2014 to 2015. As such, he argued, allying with AAP wouldn’t be prudent for the Congress.

In fact, Rai contended, a Congress-AAP alliance would only benefit the BJP. “AAP and Congress alliance, if it were to happen, would benefit the BJP as the section of the electorate that shifted from AAP to the Congress in the municipal elections will be compelled to change their political allegiance to the saffron party, which could do a rerun of the 2014 election,” he explained.

Mohanty was not convinced. “Neither Congress nor AAP can defeat BJP singlehandedly,” he said. “The Congress and AAP share the same voter base – the lower classes, lower castes and Muslims. There’s resurgence of the Congress and its traditional supporters would like to come back. AAP’s vote share has shrunk.”

Datta argued that if the Congress and AAP contest separately, Delhi’s voters could see the BJP as “a more stable party”. “It is entirely possible that if AAP and the Congress do not come to an understanding, mutual bitterness at the local party levels could neutralise their antagonism towards the BJP. This could lead voters to make an uncommitted turn to the BJP for stability.”