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AP, Orissa, TN hold the key to Congress fortunes

April 30, 2009 16:08 IST
We often complain about India being in a permanent election fever. If it is not the Lok Sabha polls there is always a clutch of major and minor states holding Vidhan Sabha elections.

In 2007 we saw Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Gujarat, Manipur, and so forth elect new assemblies. In 2008 it was the turn of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Karnataka, and so on.

It would save a lot of time and money if the elections to the legislative assemblies could be synchronised with those to Parliament. It would also give the Union Cabinet more time to govern properly, without ministers dithering over decisions because of the fallout on some election or the other. (It is scarcely a secret that hiking petroleum prices was held back for fear of alienating Karnataka's voters, a decision that cost crores.)

As it happens three states are holding assembly elections simultaneously with the Parliament polls. The three are Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Sikkim. I had the opportunity of spending much of last week in Andhra Pradesh, the largest of the three, so let me start there.

The Congress performed magnificently in 2004, winning 29 of the state's 42 seats, with its then ally the Telangana Rashtra Samiti picking up five more. The Congress also swept the polls in the Andhra Pradesh assembly, winning 185 seats in a House of 294. (This is especially creditable because the Congress contested only 234 seats, leaving the rest to various allies.)

When you think about it, it was actually the United Progressive Alliance's performance in just two states -- Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu -- that propelled it to power ahead of the National Democratic Alliance. Tamil Nadu has 39 Lok Sabha seats, to which you can add Pondicherry's single constituency. Between them, then, that adds up to a formidable 82 seats.

Back in 2004 the Bharatiya Janata Party won precisely nothing in these two states, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (then a BJP ally) got zero, and the Telugu Desam Party won just five seats.

The BJP has few realistic chances of doing better in 2009 than it did five years ago. Even if it wins a seat or two -- doubtful according to most reports -- those will not be enough to tilt the balance of power. It is, however, a different matter for the two regional parties, the AIADMK and the TDP.

I did not see any wave in Andhra Pradesh in favour of the Congress. But there did seem to be some feeling of general disgruntlement about the way that things were going on -- and that is bad news for the Congress. It will tough, almost impossible, to do better than in 2004 yet all too easy to slip.

Let us also remember that the Congress rode to power five years ago on the back of a grand coalition. Whether tacitly or openly, Congress candidates in Andhra Pradesh were supported by not just the TRS but even by the Left. (Both the Communist Party of India and the CPI-Marxist won one seat each from Andhra Pradesh in the Lok Sabha polls.) Today all those groups have drifted toward TDP leader N Chandrababu Naidu as part of a broad Third Front strategy.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh's neighbour to the south, is not having assembly polls just now. (Although it is possible that assembly elections shall come sooner than Chief Minister Karunanidhi might like should fortune favour J Jayalalithaa.) However, Vidhan Sabha polls are being held in Andhra Pradesh's northern neighbour, Orissa.

Naveen Patnaik has pulled off a neat trick in his state, deftly moving across the spectrum in about a week from an alliance with the BJP to one with the Left Front. But this does not gladden the Congress one bit, which was hoping to return to power.

Both Naidu and Patnaik have shown amazing flexibility in forging partnerships, wooing the BJP and the Left as circumstances dictated. But they have been equally firm in refusing to share power with the Congress, which remains the major competitor of the TDP and the Biju Janata Dal in their respective states.

The last thing that both parties want is a Congress ministry in Delhi. It was precisely that thought that drove both into the BJP camp ten years ago.

Ideally, the Congress wants to retain all that it won in Andhra Pradesh five years ago while picking up seats in Orissa. But what happens to its hopes of retaining power should it retreat in Andhra Pradesh without advancing in Orissa? Add a poorer performance in Tamil Nadu than in 2004, and suddenly the Congress's chances look distinctly shaky.

Both on and off the record Congressmen are confident that they will do better than before in the Left Front bastions of West Bengal and Kerala. They may be correct. After all, the Congress won precisely zero of the 17 Lok Sabha seats it contested in Kerala -- which has 20 in all -- and you can scarcely do worse than zero. And it won only six of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, nothing to boast about.

The point is that these gains could be meaningless for two reasons.

First, it scarcely matters whether a Left Front or a Congress candidate wins in any given constituency since they always seem to end up on the same side in Delhi. (Contrast that with the steady anti-Congress strategy of the TDP and the BJD whether in Delhi or in Hyderabad and Bhubaneswar.) Second, more important, any gains made in the Left Front fortresses are useful only if the Congress hangs on to the seats it already holds.

Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu held the keys to power in 2004. Add Orissa to that mix and you account for 41 of the 145 seats that the Congress won in 2004. (I am not counting those won by its allies.) How many of those shall it hold in 2009?

T V R Shenoy