For all its bravado, the Congress is running scared in the Hindi heartland and especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. While it has been out of contention in Bihar for decades now, in UP it won 22 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 and was hoping for an even bigger tally in 2014. This is unlikely to happen and internal estimates are now giving the Congress no more than three or four seats in UP. As for Bihar, only Meira Kumar’s Sasaram looks safe.
This has forced the Congress to go looking for allies. In Bihar, the party is caught between aligning with LalooYadav and Nitish Kumar. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t want a pact with Laloo, since he is in prison on charges of corruption. Rahul famously nixed the ordinance that could have saved Laloo. While the Congress crown prince prefers Nitish, the party’s political veterans argue Laloo and Ram Vilas Paswan would make for more formidable partners, taking along Muslims, Yadavs and a section of Dalits. They are less confident of Nitish holding onto his flock, given the Narendra Modi factor.
In UP, the Congress is likely to join hands with the BSP for the first time since the assembly elections of 1996. The BSP will be the senior partner and the Congress grateful for safe passage for its key leaders, including its top two functionaries in Amethi and Rae Bareli. There is also hope that Muslims will be won over from the Samajwadi Party, which fears losing younger Yadavs to the BJP. If this works to plan, UP will boil down to a BJP-BSP battle, with the Congress cheering from the margins and the SP facing a rout.
The coming assembly elections aren’t proving as much of a walkover for the BJP as the party had hoped. While Vasundhara Raje looks set to come back to office in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh could be a tight race. Eight big names of the state Congress – hopelessly divided and factionalised in 2008 – have taken to touring the as a phalanx and projecting Jyotiraditya Scindia (ironically Vasundhara’s politically estranged nephew) as chief ministerial aspirant. This has narrowed the gap with the BJP, anyway small in terms of vote share, and got Shivraj Chauhan worried.
In Chhattisgarh, the sulking Ajit Jogi – whose equation with Chief Minister Raman Singh is no secret –has been mollified by the Congress this time. Jogi, who remains a powerful but polarising figure in the state, has been won over by granting his wife and son tickets. Also, in the Bastar region, where the tacit support of the Maoists is useful, influential ultra-red ‘commanders’ have begun to make sympathetic noises about the Congress this time. The BJP had swept Bastar in 2008.
In Delhi, though, the BJP has put its best foot forward by placing Harsh Vardhan, a popular, low-key ENT specialist, as chief ministerial face. His clean image and popularity among party workers – in contrast to the vastly disliked Vijay Goel and Vijay Kumar Malhotra – have energised the BJP. If nothing else, they have brought the BJP back into contention, after the Aam Aadmi Party seemed to be running away with the anti-establishment momentum. Nevertheless how much can Vardhan achieve at this 11th hour?
Till next time, meow!