BJP president Amit Shah kicked off his party’s recent national executive meet by excoriating the Congress’s opposition to the NDA government. Making a thinly veiled dig at Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s recent sabbatical, Shah teased the party by saying that instead of constantly finding fault with the Modi government, “they should find out where their leader is.”

Shah’s jibe was just the latest in a steady stream of BJP attacks on the grand old party. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the BJP’s 2014 general election campaign was its pledge to bring about a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, or a Congress-free India. In his first day as chairman of the BJP’s election committee, then-candidate Narendra Modi declared that an India rid of the Congress would be no less than “the solution to all problems facing the country”.

Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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Obviously, the BJP’s “Congress-mukt” sloganeering paid off handsomely for the party last May. The BJP attained the first single-party majority in three decades, while the Congress sunk to its lowest Lok Sabha tally ever. As Neelanjan Sircar has shown, the BJP rout was notable for how well the party performed in constituencies where it engaged in a head-to-head battle with the Congress. In the 189 constituencies in which the two parties were the top two vote-getters, the BJP won 166 (or 88 per cent) of races, as opposed to its 49 per cent success rate in constituencies where its primary opponents were regional parties.

In the wake of the party’s historic 2014 general election debacle, Congress supporters found solace in three political realities. First, although the party’s seat share in the Lok Sabha declined four and a half-fold, nearly one in five voters cast a ballot for the Congress. Second, the Congress contingent held almost 70 seats in the Rajya Sabha — a tally sizeable enough for it to obstruct the BJP’s agenda. Finally, the Congress occupied chief ministerial posts in 11 states — a significant share of subnational power.

Unable to rectify its acute leadership vacuum or to construct a coherent programmatic alternative to the BJP, the party is slowly frittering these advantages away. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the contrasting performance of the Congress and BJP in the five most recent state assembly elections. With the exception of a modest vote increase in Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress has suffered heavy losses in seats and votes, accelerating its unceremonious decline. The BJP’s trajectory, Delhi apart, has been on the upswing. In Haryana, J&K, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, the party has enjoyed double-digit increases in both its vote and seat shares.

This reversal of fortune means that states under Congress rule now number in the single digits (9). Further, the party’s share of India’s 4,120 MLAs has dropped from 28 per cent in 2013 to just 21 per cent in 2015, while the BJP’s proportion has grown from 21 to 25 per cent over the same period. While the Congress continues to wield considerable veto power in the Rajya Sabha, its declining fortunes in state elections will gradually erode its position there, too.

With the Congress in freefall, it is no wonder that BJP leaders are gleefully taking potshots at the party’s expense. However, there is a hidden danger for the BJP in the Congress’s slide into irrelevance, perhaps best illustrated by the recent assembly election in Delhi, where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) scored a landslide victory. Counterintuitively, a truly “Congress-mukt Bharat” could be an electoral liability for the BJP.

As Figure 2 demonstrates, the BJP’s vote share in the national capital hardly budged between December 2013 and February 2015, while its seat share plummeted. The reason for this sharp disjuncture was the utter collapse of the Congress vote, which (along with the marginal vote share once claimed by the Bahujan Samaj Party) was effectively transferred into the AAP’s hands. Had the Congress put up more of a fight, it would have fragmented the anti-BJP vote, thus improving the BJP’s seat tally in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

The negative externalities of a Congress collapse will be minimal in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where there is no third party alternative to the Congress and the BJP. Instead, a hasty Congress decline has larger ramifications in states where the BJP is trying to make inroads, and where the Congress and BJP must face off with one or more prominent regional parties. By and large, this is the scenario in the major state elections over the next 18 months: Bihar (2015) and Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal (in 2016).

In this subset of states, the BJP can profit from a strong Congress that prevents the consolidation of the anti-BJP vote. Consider West Bengal, where there are four key players (the Trinamool Congress, Left Front, Congress and BJP). Recently, the BJP has been enjoying a marked improvement in its fortunes, with some evidence it is sweeping up erstwhile Left votes. Yet, the Congress’s remaining vote bank will likely move to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC if the former doesn’t reverse its slide. According to the 2014 Centre for the Study of Developing Societies post-poll, one-third of Muslims surveyed in Bengal voted for the Congress, roughly the same proportion that sided with the TMC.

Because these minority voters are not likely to find the BJP an appealing alternative, continued fragmentation should be the BJP’s preferred option. In Bihar, the best outcome for the BJP would be for a re-energised Congress, capable  of fighting elections on its own, in the hopes that it would divide the anti-BJP vote the “Janata Parivar” alliance seeks to consolidate.

At least in the short term, an India shorn of the Congress may actually not be in the BJP’s interests. What the BJP should wish for instead is a weakened but not fatally wounded Congress. While the ruling party is clearly enjoying the antics of Congress heir Rahul Gandhi, it errs in hoping his sabbatical turns into a permanent vacation, which could deepen its leadership crisis and destabilise the party. Of course, there is no guarantee that the Congress will rediscover its electoral mojo with Gandhi firmly in the saddle, but a reinvigorated Congress might well be an unexpected boon for the BJP.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.