Mass desertion, factionalism, weakened organisation and declining vote share put a question mark on the Congress’s preparedness to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha, which account for 88 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha seats.

In Bengal and Odisha, in fact, the Congress’s steady decline over the years has enabled the BJP to occupy the space of the main Opposition. Now, as recent rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest, the BJP is banking on these states to make up its likely losses in the Hindi heartland, where the Congress is expected to put a dent in the saffron party’s 2014 support following its Assembly election victories late last year. Yet, the Congress leadership has done little to rejuvenate the party in the eastern states.

It’s the same story in Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress has been nearly wiped out in the past five years. After a decade in power, the party failed to win a single Assembly seat in 2014. Apparently, even such humiliation was not enough to spur the party to work on wooing back old supporters who have shifted to Jagan Mohan Reddy’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party.

Facing a 2014 repeat?

Any hope the Congress had of staging a revival in Andhra suffered a big setback when the veteran leader Kishore Chandra Deo resigned early this month after the party decided against allying with the Telugu Desam Party for the upcoming election.

The former Union minister is certain the party will do poorly in the election. He blames the “undue haste shown for the bifurcation” of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh in 2014 for the party’s marginalisation. “Timing was a suspect since it was done just before the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls,” he said. “Since then there have been no attempts to revive the party and now the decision of not having any alliance in the state has come as a shocker. I tried reaching out to Rahul Gandhi on several occasions but there was no response.”

He complains that the Congress’s central leaders listen only to “a coterie” that does not present to them the state’s “harsh ground realities”. This is what forced him to quit the party, he claims, describing it as the “toughest decision of my life”.

Deo is not alone in thinking the Andhra Congress is beyond hope. In recent months, former Union ministers Kavuri Sambashsiva Rao and Dugubati Purandhareswari and former state ministers Paspuleti Balaraju, Vatti Vasanth Kumar and Lakshminarayana Kanna have left the party for greener pastures. Another former Union minister, Surya Prakash Reddy, is also likely to resign before the general election as is former Speaker Nadella Manohar.

They are all influential leaders which is why rival parties have been going out of their way to snare them up.

Lacking a clear strategy

Not unlike in Andhra Pradesh, political observers feel the confusion over allying with the Trinamool Congress in Bengal is damaging the Congress’s prospects. The recent exit of Malda MP Mausam Noor and 14 legislators has only deepened the impression that the Bengal Congress is no position to take on the BJP in the state, let alone the Trinamool. Senior leaders are quitting, it is contended, because they see no future for the party.

“Lacking strong grassroots organisation, the Congress’s hope of survival would depend on whether it has an alliance with Mamata,” argued Kanak Chandra Sarkar, who teaches political science at Jadavpur University, Bengal. “No Congress leader is as dynamic as Mamata is or has a mass following like her to take on an aggressive BJP. Also, Congress leaders have failed to raise any pro-people issue, thereby losing credibility. In such circumstances, they have little option but to go with Mamata.”

This is why Sarkar feels replacing Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury with Somendra Mitra as the state Congress chief makes no sense. He argued that Mitra, who was with the Trinamool earlier, was given the top job to facilitate an alliance with Banerjee. “Now, he is also giving statements against Mamata. So, what was the need to replace Adhir?” Sarkar asked.

To compound the problem, Chowdhury is rumoured to be planning to join the BJP. If that happens, it would be a bigger setback than Noor joining the Trinamool. “He is one of those few leaders in the Congress who have some sort of a mass base,” Sarkar explained.

In the 2014 general election, the Congress’s vote share in Bengal fell to 9.7% from 13.6% in 2009. The BJP, in contrast, registered its highest vote share of 16.8%, surpassing the previous best of 11.66% from 1991. Though the BJP won just two seats, it stood second in three constituencies and got over 20% of the vote in nine others.

“The political vacuum created by the decline of the Left should have been exploited by the Congress but we never had the organisational might to do so, and that helped the BJP make inroads,” rued a senior Congress leader who favours an alliance with Banerjee. “In 2019, we will win just two seats and these two would be won because of popularity of individual leaders.” The two seats – Jangipur and Malda South – are represented by Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit Mukherjee and Noor’s uncle Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury.

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi with his mother Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, N Chandrababu Naidu and HD Kumaraswamy. Photo credit: PTI

In 2014, the Congress’s vote share plummeted to 9.7% in comparison to 13.6 per cent in 2009 elections while BJP registered its highest vote share of 16.8 per cent surpassing its previous best of 11.66 per cent during the 1991 elections. Though BJP won only two seats in 2014, it returned as runner up on three seats and had a vote share of more than 20 per cent in nine other constituencies.

“Political vacuum created by the decline of Left should have been exploited by the Congress but we never had the organisational might to do so which enabled the BJP make inroads,” said a senior Congress leader who favours allying with the Trinamool. “In 2019, we will win only two seats, and only because of the popularity of individual leaders.”

The leader who asked not to be named was referring to Jangipur and Malda South seats, represented by Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit Mukherjee and Noor’s uncle Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury.

The decline of the Congress has enabled the BJP to project itself as the main Opposition in Bengal.

In spite of it all, the Congress has failed to craft a clear political strategy in Bengal, particularly for dealing with Banerjee as the contradictory reactions of the party’s leaders to the state government’s stand-off with the Central Bureau of Investigation this week showed. While Gandhi came out in support of the chief minister, Chowdhury demanded President’s Rule.

Fighting for second spot

In Odisha, the BJP replaced the Congress as the primary Opposition party after the 2017 municipal elections. Since then, the party has been weakened further by factionalism and the exodus of senior leaders.

In January, the party’s working president Naba Kishore Das resigned as did the legislator Jogesh Singh. Another heavyweight Srikant Jena is suspended. In the past few years, several senior leaders have left the party for the ruling Biju Janata Dal.

So dire is the situation that Pradeep Majhi, the new working president, told earlier this month that the party is battling for survival now. “For us, it is more about survival since we were a deeply divided unit,” he said.

Indeed, it is a running joke in Odisha that state Congress leaders spend more time defaming each other than taking on the Biju Janata Dal, or even the BJP. “Successive state presidents have had to bear the brunt of this infighting and the central leadership not backing them has made it trickier for anyone who wishes to revive the party,” said a senior Odisha Congress leader who asked not to be identified.

He claimed state Congress leaders no longer have even any desire to take on the Biju Janata Dal. They are merely banking on public anger against the BJP government at the Centre to regain the second spot from the saffron party in Odisha.

But given its performance in the 2017 local polls, increasing its tally from 36 seats in 2012 to 297, the BJP is confident of staying on an upward curve. In the 2017 polls, the Biju Janata Dal largely held on to its vote share while the BJP ate into the Congress’s support. The grand old party’s vote share in the state has declined steadily since 2004.

The Congress did not win any of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha in 2014. The party is unlikely to do much better in 2019.

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