It’s an old cliché no doubt, but elections often are about numbers, mathematics and cold calculations. Yes, charisma, ideology, policies and campaigning strategy do matter. But at the end of the day, it really boils down to numbers. That is the reason why the Republican challenger Mitt Romney looks all set to lose badly to Barack Obama on November 6 when Americans vote for a new President. He is losing despite the terrible economic situation in the United States since Obama took over in January 2009. Obama should have lost, but it is numbers that are working for him. Republican ideology, particularly the hard line attitude of the faithful, has alienated huge chunks of voters. Women, students, blacks and Hispanics are overwhelmingly against Republicans and will vote for Obama. The number of these groups of voters will surely outnumber the angry white voters who will vote for Romney.
Of course India is vastly different from US. And of course, elections are still – at least officially – far away in 2014. But even at this early a stage, it is easy to see why the numbers appear stacked against the Congress in 2014. And that is the reason why Sonia Gandhi and her advisors and strategists are a worried lot. I am not talking just about the impact of the serial scams like Commonwealth Games, 2G, airport privatisation, Coalgate and the latest irrigation scam in Maharashtra. I am not talking just about the venomous bite of inflation that is destroying household budgets. I am not talking just about the manner in which Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has become the butt of jokes and cruel humour despite the recent and futile efforts of some sections of the media to portray him as a decisive leader. I am not talking just about the damage that reluctant allies like Mulayam Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar and Karunanidhi will inflict during the run up to 2014 even as they prop up the tottering UPA regime. All these things will have an impact on Congress’ fortunes in 2014. No doubt about that. But it is the curse of cold, hard numbers that could have a more dangerous impact.
Before we get into the analysis of the cold, hard numbers, let us first take a cold, hard look at the factors that led to the triumph of the Congress and the UPA in 2009. Everybody talks about how the jholawallah advisors of Sonia Gandhi who comprise the National Advisory Council crafted the Congress victory of 2009 by coming up with schemes like NREGA. Then there was the Rs.600 billion farm loan waiver announced in 2009. If you believe these played a decisive role in 2009, you are misinformed and wrong. Overwhelmingly rural states – where you would expect to find grateful beneficiaries of NREGA and farm loan amnesties – like Odisha, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh did not give a lot of seats to the Congress. Including Uttar Pradesh, the Congress managed just 46 out of 195 seats from these states in 2009. In fact, the Congress and the UPA did amazingly well in urban constituencies in 2009. It won 13 out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats on offer in Delhi and Mumbai. That performance was last seen perhaps in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi swept India in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. So fact number one is that Congress did fabulously in urban centers.
Fact number two is the massive vote against the Left in West Bengal and Kerala that gave Congress and the UPA 39 out of 62 seats in 2009 in these two states. Fact number three is the strong alliances that gave a lot of seats to the UPA in 2009. In West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra, the Congress and the UPA managed to win a massive 98 out of 159 seats in 2009. And who can forget fact number four – YSR Reddy who, along with the Majlis-e- Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), gave the Congress a spectacular 34 out of 42 seats in Andhra. In 2009, YSR was clearly the incumbent hero who simply swept aside all opposition despite loud whispers of numerous scams and instances of crony capitalism. The last factor is the suicidal behaviour of the BJP that gave the Congress 20 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan in 2009.
Add up all these facts and it is easy to figure out how the Congress won 206 Lok Sabha seats and how the UPA won a decisive majority in 2009.
And now comes the curse of cold numbers. Sonia Gandhi and her advisors are painfully aware that there is simply no way that the urban voter will repeat her 2009 preferences. A series of scams have unquestionably and badly dented the image of the Congress amongst urban voters. Sure, governments facing charges of corruption have been re-elected. Consider YSR Reddy of the Congress in 2009 and the Akali Dal- BJP combine in Punjab in 2012. But this time, the stench of corruption and its fallout is so pervasive that the Congress is almost certainly staring at a Bofors like situation. Mind you, Rajiv Gandhi was deeply popular across the nation in 1989 when his party slumped from 413 odd seats to about 150 odd seats. He was certainly more popular than Rahul Gandhi is today. Add the ravaging effect of inflation to the series of scams and you have one hell of an angry urban voter.
Despite the best efforts of this government, or perhaps because of its utter lack of sincere efforts, food inflation stubbornly stays above the double-digit mark. This has created havoc with household budgets. Add a very high interest rate regime and the soaring cost of home and retail loans and you worsen the mood of the urban electorate. The latest and absolutely stupid decision to ration LPG cylinders is yet another blow. Quite simply, the Congress has blown away its urban chances. Can you honestly see the Congress winning 13 out of 13 seats from Delhi and Mumbai in 2014? Even die hard Congress supporters will think you are a nut case if you believe so. Why the articulate spokesperson of the Congress Manish Tiwari will be damned lucky if can manage to retain his Ludhiana seat!
Then let’s come to the allies. Mamata Bannerji has already walked away. So the Congress can kiss goodbye to West Bengal in 2014, both for itself and the UPA. At the time of going to press, the crisis triggered by the resignation of Maharahstra Deputy Chief Minister and Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar because of the irrigation scam had not been resolved. The NCP and the Congress have always been uneasy allies. The unease and distrust will widen during the run up to 2014. What about Tamil Nadu? Well, it is not just Karunanidhi but the entire DMK cadre which is hopping mad at the Congress for the manner in which DMK leaders like Kanimozhi and D. Raja were jailed for months for the 2G scam while not a single Congress leader was touched.
In a recent State of the Nation survey conducted by our sister publication The Sunday Indian, some of the results were extraordinary. To a question as to whom they would prefer as the next Prime Minister of India, an overwhelming majority of DMK supporters said they would prefer Narendra Modi over Rahul Gandhi. Do remember, the Congress and the UPA had won 98 out of 159 seats in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra. That appears virtually impossible today. Why, the Congress and the UPA will be lucky to retain even 50 out of this 98.
Now comes the last bit of the cold, hard numbers. The Congress has to make up big time in other states and with other voters, if urban voters and allies will lead to a huge fall in numbers. But where exactly will these numbers come from? There are only three states where the Congress has any hope or chance of improving its tally. They are Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka which together account for 53 seats. The Congress won just 8 out of these 53 in 2009. A superb performance will lead to a gain of about 22 seats. But then, the Congress has 33 out of 42 seats in Andhra, 9 out of 10 in Haryana, 20 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 8 out of 13 in Punjab and 5 out of 5 in Uttarakhand.
Of course, 2014 is still far away. But as these cold, hard and unforgiving numbers clearly suggest, Sonia Gandhi and her advisors know that the bells have started tolling for the immediate future of the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. Of course spectacular comebacks are always possible in politics. It is entirely possible that Narendra Modi loses Gujarat and the Prime Minister actually becomes decisive, assertive and articulate!