Congress cannot take ‘safe haven’ South for granted

Nestling in the green foothills of Karnataka’s Chikmagalur Mullayangiri ranges and surrounded by lush coffee plantations is scenic Chikmagalur, or ‘little daughter’s town’. Chikmagalur is from where Indira Gandhi, after being trounced in the post-Emergency general elections of 1977 and thrown out of power, chose to contest in October 1978 in the historic Lok Sabha by-election. ‘Give your vote to your little daughter’ was one of Mrs Gandhi’s slogans.

The Chikmagalur victory was a turning point for Mrs Gandhi who returned to parliament within a year of her defeat, defeating her Janata Party rival by 70,000 votes. It was seen as her revival in national politics. For decades, Karnataka was a Congress fortress. In the post-Emergency elections of 1977, the Congress won 26 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats; in the four southern states- Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala- the Congress won 92 seats, or 60 per cent of the party’s total tally of 154 it won across the country.

For decades, South India was a safest haven for the Congress. When there was electoral failure in rest of India, South would stand united with the Congress. In 1980 general elections, when Mrs Gandhi resurrected the Congress after its worst defeat in 1977 elections, the late prime minister contested from Medak in Andhra Pradesh (now in Telangana) and won by cornering 68 per cent of votes.

The ‘South-as-safe-Congress-haven’ story continued even two decades later in 1999 when Sonia Gandhi contested from Bellary in Karnataka, in addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, and won against a formidable Sushma Swaraj. It was seen as an effort to revive the Congress after its worst ever performance in 1998 Lok Sabha elections in which the party had won 141 seats.

In 2014, the Congress fell well below even its 1998 seat tally- it won only 44 seats, the lowest ever in the history of general elections since 1951. In the ongoing general elections, not only the Congress needs to revive itself from the historic lows it hit five years ago, both in terms of seats and vote share, but also counter the ideological challenge of BJP-led Right.

Having revived its fortunes twice in the past when the South voted overwhelmingly for the Congress which also helped re-establish the primacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family in the Congress, Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad this time, in addition to Amethi, is being seen as a step that will help him revive the Congress once again across the country. But with South not being a safe haven for the Congress anymore, will it bail out the party for the third time?

The South of today is not what it was for Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother four decades ago; neither is it what it was for his mother two decades ago. Let’s consider electoral data over four decades from 1971 elections onwards. Between 1971 and 1991, the South was the most loyal region for the Congress, though Tamil Nadu had a strong Dravidian counter narrative and the Communists were quite strong in Kerala.

Of the four southern states, Karnataka and Andhra were the most loyal during this period, while in Tamil Nadu and Kerala the Congress dipped and bounced back periodically. Even in 1989 elections when Congress faced a united opposition under V P Singh’s leadership and was voted out of power, the South voted overwhelmingly for the grand old party: the four states contributed 108 seats out of the 197 it won across the country.

Things began to change after 1991. With the emergence of Telugu Desam Party in the 80s, Andhra started going the way of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though its loyalty to the Congress became fickle, the state kept voting for the party periodically, like it did in 1989, 2004 and 2009. However, after the disastrous handling of the state’s bifurcation, it lost its loyal supporters in Andhra and Telagana. Similar pattern emerged in Karnataka in the mid-90s where the Congress faced challenges from the Janata Dal and the BJP.

Except in 1999 when Sonia Gandhi won in Bellary and the Congress bagged 18 of the state’s 28 seats, the party has been reduced to single digits in three successive elections in Karnataka since then. Even in Tamil Nadu, the Congress lost its ability to maintain a steady vote share and an average of 20 seats after prominent Congress leaders grouped under Tamil Manila Congress and became entirely dependent on alliances with Dravidian parties.

With regional parties- TDP, TSR, YSR, AIADMK and DMK- playing the identity and sub-nationalistic politics, the Congress has ceded political space to these regional parties in Andhra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, while in Karnataka, the BJP occupies the anti-Congress space. This makes South a difficult region for the Congress where every seat will have to be keenly contested and won, including Wayanad, as no seat can be said to be a safe seat.

In 2014, the South gave 21 out of the 44 seats the Congress won across the country. This was also the lowest seat tally for Congress in South. This brings up the question: Is Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad a good decision then? It may be and the reason lies in the Congress president’s popularity in the South.

According to various opinion polls over the last six months, Rahul Gandhi’s popularity exceeds that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whether it is in Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana or Kerala, irrespective of the Congress party’s strength in these states. Like the BJP, Congress does not have much presence in three states, while in Kerala it is a strong player. Rahul’s lead over Modi is more than a personality contest.

Political observers are of the view that the Congress enjoys an advantage over BJP because there is also a feeling in the southern states that the BJP-led Modi government represents a threat to India’s federal structure. By contesting from Wayanad, Rahul may be sending a larger message that he stands for the South against any possible assertion of the Centre.

This symbolism is expected to give the Congress and UPA better results. Various opinion polls have given the Congress-led UPA around 60 to 65 seats in South. That’s certainly a big improvement over 2014. If the Congress manages to put a better show in the heartland states where it is directly pitted against BJP, it may even emerge strong to lead a UPA government. Muted turnout in the first two phases of elections so far may not be good news for BJP in the battleground states.

A L I Chougule is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.

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