Tuesday saw another disappointing performance from the Congress in a state where it is not the main opposition party. In the Bihar Assembly elections, the party won a mere 19 of the 70 seats it had contested as part of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Mahagathbandan or the Grand Alliance.

Its record was particularly dismal in contests with its main national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 33 seats in which the two clashed, the Congress managed victories in only six.

In a close election, its performance had a profound effect on the results. The National Democratic Alliance of the BJP and the ruling Janata Dal (United) won 125 of the 243 seats. The Grand Alliance finished with 110 – the Congress had pulled it down.

Congress leaders tried to place the blame on others. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, slammed the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi for splitting the secular votes and helping the BJP in the state. The AIMIM ended with a surprise tally of five seats.

In response, Owaisi termed the Congress incompetent of fighting the BJP and said both the parties were two sides of the same coin.

However, Bihar is not the first time the Congress has failed to impress in a state where it is not the main opposition. With Assembly elections due in key states of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in April 2021, states where the Congress is a minor player, how to treat the national party in seat-sharing is a question that the regional heavyweights will face.

Punching below its weight

For some years now, despite its poor performance, the Congress has demanded a sizable number of seats in its alliances with regional parties based on its past reputation and image as the main opponent to the BJP at the national level. Often, given that states like Tamil Nadu have close contests, with even a few percentage points difference in the vote share resulting in landslides for the respective fronts, the main parties in the alliances see some value in holding on to the Congress.

In 2016 in Tamil Nadu, the Congress managed to bag 41 seats in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance. In the end, it won only eight of those, leading to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam beating the trend of alternate governments in the state every five years and winning two Assembly elections on a trot.

The data of the 2016 Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu clearly showed how the Congress pulled the DMK down. Analysis by The Hindu showed that DMK had an average of 41.05% vote share in each of the seats it won, higher than AIADMK’s 40.78% average vote share. In contrast, the Congress, the biggest ally of the DMK, managed only 36.46%. Other allies of the DMK also fared poorly.

This meant in overall vote share, the AIADMK, which contested alone, pulled ahead with a lead of 1.1%. In terms of seats, this resulted in the AIADMK bagging 134 seats and the DMK alliance only 98 seats. The AIADMK beat the Congress in 33 of the 41 seats they locked horns in.

In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 2017, the Congress contested 105 seats as part of the alliance led by Samajwadi Party and won a mere seven seats.

In West Bengal, however, Congress did much better than the Communist Party of India (Marxist), winning 44 of the 92 seats contested in the 2016 Assembly polls. The CPI (M) performed dismally, bagging just 26 of 148 seats.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and DMK chief MK Stalin at the unveiling of a statue of Karunanidhi in Chennai in 2018. Photo: PTI

Regional parties and Congress

Given this recent history, how do regional parties feel in the backdrop of the Bihar Assembly election results?

A senior DMK leader, who did not want to be identified, said that 2016 was a lesson the party will keep in mind when the seat-sharing talks begin for the 2021 Assembly polls.

The leader said the DMK’s alliance with the Congress will continue but the national party cannot expect the same number of seats it got the last time. He said he was hopeful that it would not demand too much either, given what is at stake in the state.

DMK leaders gave two reasons for this. First, there is no evidence to suggest that the Congress organisation in the state has improved over the last five years. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the only candidate in the DMK alliance who lost was EVKS Elangovan of the Congress. “He belongs to Erode but they chose to give him a seat in Theni, which resulted in the solitary loss,” a Lok Sabha member from the DMK pointed out. “This tells you that the party has problems even in candidate selection.”

Another senior leader said the DMK is better placed to defeat the AIADMK in straight contests. This means, the DMK will try to contest as many seats as possible to limit the AIADMK’s chances of taking advantage of the weak organisational capacity of some of its alliance partners. “This election, whether we like it or not, is a do-or-die battle for us. We cannot let the AIADMK, which is in such a weak position after Jayalalithaa’s demise, win a third election in a row.”

However, Congress Lok Sabha member Karti Chidambaram took serious exception to the comparisons made. “State elections are like a tennis match. You can lose one set but come back strongly in another,” he said.

Chidambaram said the Congress in Tamil Nadu has traditionally been a vote multiplier whenever it has contested in an alliance. This apart, the presence of the Congress provides an assurance to the minorities that the front is indeed secular.

“No voter in Tamil Nadu or West Bengal is going to vote with the Bihar election results in mind,” he said. “In fact, the voter preference in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, which are geographically contiguous, is different. What is important is the context of the state. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress-DMK alliance will be a winning alliance this time.”