Though the high-voltage electoral battle for Delhi may have become a ‘nak ka sawaal’ (matter of prestige) for BJP president Amit Shah and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal, the Congress can’t be ruled out as a spent force just yet.
While it's true that it is a battle for survival for the Congress. The party that was in power for three consecutive terms (1998-2013) is now struggling hard to regain the lost ground after facing a chain of defeats since the last assembly elections in Delhi and in several states thereafter.
The fate of Congress in the crucial assembly elections in Delhi depends on a large number of factors, the key among them are:
Leadership: Faced with the challenge of regaining lost ground, the Congress, after serious deliberations, appointed former Union Minister Ajay Maken as chairman of the party’s 101-member campaign committee for Delhi Assembly polls, thus marking the dawn of a new leadership in the capital to carry forward the legacy of its three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
Congress high command’s decision to elevate Maken as its campaign committee chief holds significance and reflects the party faith in the young leader’s ability to work and deliver under tight deadlines.
Since his elevation, the AICC general secretary has been making all out efforts to prevent the party from drawing a complete blank in the polls and has gone to the people with an appeal that they should go for a “tried and tested” party. However, Maken also faces tough external and internal challenges.
It is believed that the move to handover the ‘big responsibility’ to Maken faced tough resistance from none other than the Delhi Pradesh Congress president, Arvinder Singh Lovely, who in protest later decided not to contest the election. Though the last-minute intervention by the central leadership settled the matter, quelling dissidence within his own party, keeping the party intact and drawing effective strategies to checkmate a formidable BJP and an equally combative Aam Aadmi Party are some of the big challenges faced by the bespectacled leader, who climbed the ranks of the Congress after starting out as DUSU president.
Not just reviving the Congress in Delhi, Maken also has an uphill task of re-establishing the supremacy of the ‘Gandhi’ family within the party.
Split in Congress vote share: If the findings of the recent polls surveys conducted by various agencies in the run up to the polls are to be believed, then a lot would depend on their ability to make a dent in the vote share of their rivals. To make it simpler, the recent poll surveys suggest that both AAP and BJP have nearly equal vote share (44-45%) and the Congress’ vote share appears to have shrunk to just (10-12 %), so the Congress would need to effectuate a massive swing in its favour to make a difference. Clearly, with both the AAP and the BJP having nearly equal percentage of committed votes, the real fight will be for the non-BJP, non-AAP vote, which means the forerunners may be eyeing the Congress vote to further their lead.
Any unexpected split in the Congress’ votes would lead to three possible scenarios – a hung house if a big chunk of the party’s vote splits half-half between AAP and the BJP, if the Congress’ voters from the poorer section prefer to vote for AAP this time, we could see Kejriwal in saddle again and, third, if the grand old party manages to retain the bulk of its own vote (it got 24.65% votes in 2013 polls) or the traditional Congress voter decides to go with the BJP, it is the latter that would benefit mostly in both the cases.
To ensure its comfortable victory in the polls, the BJP would not like the Congress votes to get divided sharply - as it is just marginally ahead of AAP.
Faulty ticket distribution and weak candidates: Though campaigning for Delhi polls has now entered a decisive phase, there is much anger among some senior state Congress leaders whose recommendations were ignored by the high command while deciding on the party candidates for polls. A large number of local Congress workers are said to be upset with the party leadership over the issue. Congress workers were reportedly upset with party’s decision to field candidates like CP Mittal (from Tughlakabad), Sachin Bidhuri (from Hari Nagar), Vishnu Agarwal (from Sangam Vihar), who they consider as weak candidates as they all were defeated in the municipal elections.
Influence of turncoats: The 2015 Delhi assembly election is unique in many ways as several popular political figures, who held important portfolios in their former parties, switched their loyalties this time to contest polls on tickets of rival parties. And more interestingly, all three main parties - BJP, Congress and AAP – rolled out the red carpet to welcome these defectors, many of whom were even rewarded with a party ticket at the cost of their own loyal party workers.
In a huge setback for Congress, its prominent Dalit face and former union minister Krishna Tirath switched her allegiance to the BJP at the eleventh hour. Tirath, a three-time MLA, was elected to the Delhi Assembly in 1993, 1998 and 2003 from now abolished Baljeet Nagar seat, a part of which is now in Patel Nagar. She had served as the Union Minister for Women and Child Development in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government between 2004 and 2013. An obliged BJP lost no time in making her a candidate from Patel Nagar constituency barely hours after she joined the saffron brigade.
Besides Tirath, former Congress MLA from Shakur Basti SC Vats and councillor Jyoti Nitin Agarwal too joined BJP and were offered party tickets to contest polls. Vats, a former AICC secretary, was the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in Delhi Assembly, which had indicted Sheila Dikshit government over privatisation of power in 2005. The PAC report was adopted unanimously by the Delhi Assembly which had then given its nod for a CBI probe.
While Tirath and others switched their loyalties towards the BJP, five-time MLA and sitting Janata Dal(U) legislator from Matia Mahal Constituency, Shoaib Iqbal - a regular party hopper - joined the Congress. He is now contesting as the Congress candidate from Matia Mahal. Though BJP has been the biggest beneficiary of intra-party defections in Delhi, the impact of these defectors on voters and their ability to cause a major swing is yet to be tested electorally.
The aura of ‘Gandhis’: After remaining largely inactive, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has suddenly woken from slumber and hit the campaign trail to work for the stated aim of reviving the party and motivate the ground-level workers. Led by Rahul Gandhi, Congress' first road show of this poll season was aimed squarely at its core constituency of low-income groups. During his road show in south Delhi, Rahul Gandhi asserted that Congress will stage a comeback. He also promised to provide cheap electricity and water, give permanent jobs to contractual workers and affordable housing to all. Though the Congress heir is trying hard to reconnect the party with the commoners and build the broken bonds, he faces an uphill task of regaining the confidence of voters even in party’s traditional strongholds. A lot will also depend on how Congress bigwigs – Rahul and Sonia Gandhi – succeed in mobilizing the voters through their high-decibel electioneering in the run up to the polls.
However hard the Congress may try, it is a fact the party’s campaign has been a low-key affair and lags behind the high-voltage campaigns of the AAP and the BJP, hence it urgently requires an effective campaign strategy. Reviving and rescuing Congress in this poll is a big challenge for Rahul Gandhi and Maken as the party’s poor past record also makes the task extremely difficult for them.
In last 2013 Assembly elections, Congress could win just eight of the 70 seats – a loss of 41 seats from its 2008 position. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, all the seven sitting Congress MPs lost their seats to the BJP and the party could not even come second, as the contest had become a BJP Vs AAP affair.
It will be interesting to watch where the party goes from here. A win could reinvigorate the party's rank-and-file across the country; a loss may spell doom, at best the party should hope to emerge as a king maker in the post poll scenario and thus avoid becoming irrelevant in Delhi politics.