Political Illusions & 2024 Polls! 

Karnataka Assembly Election Result

Should the Karnataka elections be viewed as a crucial signal of what 2024 parliamentary polls may spell for Congress as well as parties deliberating on an anti-BJP alliance? To a degree, yes and also no. Success of Congress in Karnataka Assembly Elections in comparison to defeat the party suffered in Punjab Assembly (February 2022) and the result of West Bengal Elections (March-April 2021) may be viewed as a pointer to several significant facts. Of these, the most relevant is apparently the electoral irrelevance of the so-called communal politicking. Hype raised about religious extremism seem to have had no appeal for voters in these three states. Yes, the timing as well as conduct of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Unite India March (Bharat Jodo Yatra) bore relevance for Karnataka elections. At the same time, with respect to grass-root campaigning accorded by Congress to Karnataka, the party seems to have lagged behind on this front in West Bengal as well as Punjab.

In West Bengal, the landslide victory of Mamata Bannerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) certainly asserted the strong command held by the lady in her home state. In addition, her recognition, through her attire and simple appearance, apparently bears its own importance for common people of the state. Failure of Congress and CPI(M) to win a single seat and success of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in gaining recognition as the opposition party by winning 77 seats carries its own message. In the preceding elections (2016), BJP won only three seats while the Congress won 44 and CPI(M) 26 seats. Clearly, Congress and its ally (Left bloc) erred severely in banking upon their limited success in 2016 polls and also judging potential of TMC as well as BJP. With respect to voters, as 2021 results suggest, 48% opted for TMC, 38% for BJP and less than five for Congress-Left Bloc.

Prior to next assembly elections in West Bengal, there is no knowing as to what would be signalled by alliances entered into and/or walked out of following the results of coming parliamentary polls. At present, there is no denying that TMC views a greater threat from BJP than from Congress and/or the Left bloc. While Mamata probably has strong reservations about allying with either Congress or Left bloc, BJP’s inroad into West Bengal has apparently made her extremely apprehensive about this. BJP gave a close fight to TMC in 2019 parliamentary elections. Of the 42 seats from WB, TMC won 22, followed by BJP – 18, while Congress won only two and the Left bloc- none.

It is possible, BJP gained strength during parliamentary (2019) as well as assembly polls (2021) in comparison to being practically insignificant in earlier elections, as anti-TMC and other parties lost support among people. As results suggest, TMC retained its majority but division among other parties helped BJP electorally. Regional parties in most states may be said to be faced with an extremely taxing situation at present. This refers to risk posed to their own strength by other intra-state parties as well as national parties.

Clearly, the recent rise of BJP in WB seems to be posing danger signals to strength of TMC in its own domain. This is marked not just by increasing number of seats but also the gain in percentage of votes by BJP in parliamentary as well as assembly elections. Comparatively, the gain in votes and seats by Congress as well as the Left bloc poses no threat. However, prospects of alliance with them bears chances of TMC remaining ahead of BJP. There is no doubt that Mamata has begun deliberating upon this strategy as soon after victory of Congress in Karnataka she hinted at her being open to joining hands with Congress in coming days.

Undeniably, regarding voters’ verdict in Karnataka, great role was played by impact of Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra and electoral appeal of senior Congress leader, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. But Siddaramaiah’s electoral significance doesn’t have the same appeal at the national level. Certainly, his victory has prompted other regional leaders, to consider their political prospects by joining hands with Congress. The message is simple. Joining hands with BJP bears great risk to their own respective positions in their states. Regional leaders like Nitish Kumar (JD-U), present Chief Minister of Bihar, Mehbooba Mufti (PDP), former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir and a few others have apparently learned the hard way the political threat that alliance with BJP can pose to their own chief ministerial berths and electoral standing in their states. This has probably cautioned other regional leaders about risks posed by such alliance. Clearly, these don’t want their own and their parties’ distinct regional identity to be snubbed by BJP’s rise in their states.

There is no denying a key political strategy of BJP is to target Congress at the national level as well as in different states. Yes, it has been shocked by its recent defeat in Karnataka. But was, in all probability, earlier thrilled by failure of Congress to return to power in Punjab and in Delhi. Both states have witnessed victory of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal. There is no doubt, AAP remains apprehensive about threat posed by Congress during next elections in both states. Congress as well as few regional parties are probably not pleased by electoral aims of AAP marked by it trying to expand its reach in other states. Even a minor percentage of votes gained by it bears the risk of turning their possible victories into defeats with BJP or other parties taking the lead. The same may be said about parties such as the one led by Asaduddin Owaisi – All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and certain independent candidates trying their stake in elections.

Congress is the leading opposition party in the present Lok Sabha, though with only 52 seats against BJP’s 303 seats. Even if all non-BJP parties had chosen to align following the 2019 elections, the question of BJP being pushed to the opposition did not prevail. Regional parties managed to retain their strength in only a few states with majority of Lok Sabha seats in many states being won by BJP. True, a few of these regional parties had reached a silent understanding with BJP ahead of 2019 elections. At present, chances of the same parties playing the same cards in 2024 polls seem fairly limited. As mentioned earlier, they seem on guard about risk posed to their position by shaking hands with BJP.

The situation may have been different in 2019 if they had reached an electoral understanding regarding sharing of seats and joint campaigning ahead of the elections. Undeniably, several parties have begun working actively in this direction from now with probably Nitish Kumar ahead of all. Kejriwal has also begun using similar cards. The manner in which latter has reached out to Mamata Bannerjee apparently has its own purpose. The view held by certain senior Congress leaders about Kejriwal having displayed his proximity with BJP on certain crucial issues – including when Congress was being targeted cannot also be ignored. At present AAP has only one member in Lok Sabha.

In addition to 2024-polls being a game of numbers, a lot is likely to be decided by how these parties align in fielding their candidates against BJP. Equally significant would be BJP’s strategy and the most crucial would be voters’ decision. The latter’s strength is likely to be marked by whether anti-BJP votes are divided among several candidates or not. As crucial as communication strategy displayed by candidates in the fray would be the manner in which voters exercise their strategies. The question of Modi-hype moving electors to decide their votes may be viewed as fairly frail. But the hard reality of risks posed if leaders of opposition parties remain over-confident about their respective potentials cannot be ignored. That Kejriwal is not accepted as a national leader has been exposed by success of his party being limited to Delhi and Punjab. Nitish Kumar’s strength in Bihar also has certain limitations. That of Mamata is largely limited to West Bengal. While Congress has a wider reach, the party needs to understand and accept its limitations in UP, Bihar, West Bengal and other areas. Similarly, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party need to deliberate on their potential/limitation by aligning/not aligning.

Prospects of Congress victory in Karnataka being repeated at the parliamentary level at present may be viewed as good as non-existent. The Congress has to seriously deliberate upon strategy of staking its claims in the coming parliamentary polls on its own strength and in alliance with regional parties. Just as latter’s strength in their states cannot be ignored, parties like AAP cannot afford to be over-confident about their potential throughout the country. Leaders considering anti-BJP alliance for 2024 polls need to seriously deliberate on what they may lose if they remain guided by their own rhetoric. They should stop banking on illusions about their gains and give greater importance to political understanding needed to seriously contest as an alliance!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).       

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