Lucknow/New Delhi: The Congress' poor performance in Uttar Pradesh has shaken up the party by proving that Rahul Gandhi was not able to win over voters who were desperately seeking change. They ignored the Congress and opted instead for the Samajwadi Party (SP). The change of guard in Lucknow is already being felt in Delhi.
So much that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had to make a public appearance today to explain the Congress' poor performance and to allay fears that the Congress-led UPA had been rendered even more fragile.
Mrs Gandhi said the election results would in no way damage the UPA and that her government "will continue to talk to allies and opposition and I am sure they will support us on issues that benefit the people."
BJP leader Sushma Swaraj told NDTV yesterday why she believes mid-term elections are likely for the country. General elections are scheduled only in 2014, but Ms Swaraj says a seat count shows a weakened Congress is incapable of serving any longer as the pivot for the UPA coalition at the Centre.
Ms Swaraj also gave voice to what is the political buzz. Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav can form the government on his own in UP and doesn't need an alliance with the Congress as a Plan B. That gives him huge leverage at the Centre, where his party lends support to the UPA on important votes in Parliament. The recent friction within the UPA was also highlighted by Ms Swaraj. She pointed to a series of outbursts against the Centre from Mamata Banerjee, who heads the Trinamool Congress, the largest party in the UPA after the Congress. The BJP, Ms Swaraj said, reads into this signs of an early election. She said that though her party will not steer events towards a mid-term poll, she believes the BJP is ready for a general election.
The Congress indeed needed a good haul of seats in UP for more reasons than just Rahul Gandhi staking his all in the state. Its best calculations would have been that alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav by offering him support in UP and getting him to actively support the UPA government at the Centre. The SP's 22 MPs would have helped offset Ms Banerjee's 18, whom she threatens to withdraw very regularly.
The Congress also lost a heavy bid for power in Punjab, where it had assumed a long tradition of anti-incumbency would bring it to office. Instead, the state has, for the first time, re-elected the party in power, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally. The electoral failures come at a time when the Congress has been enervated by a series of corruption scandals. A good performance could have helped revive its credibility as well as its authority in an increasingly fragile coalition.
Lately, the Congress has been slammed for its policy paralysis. In the Rajya Sabha or upper house, it is in a minority. 58 seats will fall vacant in April; ten belong to UP. A majority of these will go to Samajwadi Party. A strong showing by the Congress could also have helped it push its overall tally up in the Rajya Sabha, where it is dependent on allies like Ms Banerjee to help pass crucial legislation.
Instead, an increasingly defiant Ms Banerjee has blocked reform in retail which marked an initiative by the Prime Minister. Last month, Ms Banerjee led a campaign to block the Centre's proposal for the new National Counter Terrorism Centre or NCTC. She sided openly with nine other chief ministers who head non-Congress governments in their states. They allege that the NCTC's mandate violated the principles of federalism by stomping upon the rights of states to handle law and order. Ms Banerjee's show of fraternity with chief ministers like Odisha's Naveen Patnaik has provoked speculation about plans for a Third Front which would combine parties like Ms Banerjee's and Mr Patnaik's with Chandrababu Naidu's TDP in Andhra Pradesh.
Ms Swaraj's talk of mid-term election was based on the BJP's analysis that many of these regional parties that have swept states recently, like Ms Banerjee or J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu or even the Samajwadi Party rules states might support the idea of a mid-term election to cash in on their popularity and improve their tally in Parliament.
There are other challenges for the Congress. Like the Presidential elections in June this year. The Congress does not have a majority in the electoral college. Even adding its allies does not give it that number. And the way allies like the Trinamool have stone-walled every move in the last few months, their support cannot be taken for granted. This will mean that for the ruling party to put its candidate in the Rashtrapati Bhawan it will have to select a person acceptable across - to allies and other regional parties, like the SP and the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance.
And before all that, in 10 days, the Congress' Pranab Mukherjee presents the General Budget. This was the government's last chance to push fiscal reforms with a hard, objective Budget. Next year will be too close to General Elections. With the Congress' coalition conundrum still unsolved, the government's hand may be forced on several hard decisions which allies like Ms Banerjee are most likely to oppose.