Debating India

Congress gains some, loses more

Tuesday 7 June 2005

With elusive Goa once again within its reach, and the sweep in Haryana coming as a bonus, the Congress has found no reason to hide its happiness. Yet it is at best one-and-a-half cheers for the party considering the drubbing it received in Uttar Pradesh and in the southern States in the recent round of by-elections. By virtue of winning four of five Assembly seats in Goa, the Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, are well poised to form a government in a State notoriously predisposed to instability and regime change. Indeed, it says something for the see-saw nature of politics in Goa that the victorious Congress-NCP team is made up wholly of defectors; all four candidates were once part of the BJP-led Manohar Parrikar Government, and their resignation led to the Government losing its majority. What followed thereafter was of course a murky story of defections, disqualifications and dismissals, where the main roles were played by the presiding officers of the State Assembly and the Governor. The by-elections came about in a situation where two Governments, led by Mr. Parrikar and by the Congress’ Pratapsinh Rane, exited in quick succession. It is a small consolation that this time round the defectors have returned, not in the time-worn fashion of simply switching sides, but duly approved by an electorate presumably aware of their antecedents. Among those elected is former Deputy Chief Minister Digambar Kamat who won despite a BJP campaign centred on his party-hopping skills.

Unlike in the case of Goa, which was a hard-won victory, the Congress had it easy in Haryana: it won all three Assembly seats by huge margins. However, these elections were in reality a carryover from the February 2005 Assembly poll which saw the electorate root for the Congress in a big way. Besides, Goa and Haryana are minuscule compared to Uttar Pradesh and the southern States of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress came a cropper. In Uttar Pradesh, the party’s humiliation was compounded by the fact that all four Assembly seats were picked up by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and its ally, the Rashtriya Lok Dal. A loss in by-elections is normally not something to lose sleep over. Yet for a party dreaming of staging a comeback in the Hindi heartland, this setback is a rude reality check. In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party retained the Penukonda Assembly seat in the face of its rival’s claim to mass appeal and popularity. The Congress’ rout in Kerala is reflective of the mess the party is currently in, and will do no good to its already bleak prospects in the coming Assembly election. Nor do the losses in Karnataka bode well. The party lost the Chamarajpet Assembly seat, vacated by S. M. Krishna, to the Janata Dal (Secular) while S. Bangarappa, who recently joined the SP, retained the Shimoga Lok Sabha seat. All the Congress can do now is to hope that this does not lead to a re-alignment of forces in Karnataka.

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