Opinion: Why Congress' Telangana Win Complicates INDIA Strategy

The Congress has lost to the BJP 3-0 in Hindi heartland states with a consolation win in Telangana. The party failed to save its governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh or exploit the anti-incumbency against the almost 20-year-old BJP government in Madhya Pradesh.

While its win against the BRS in Telangana does bode well for its revival in southern India, the state sends only 17 MPs to parliament. The three states that the Congress lost send a combined 65 MPs to parliament.

The losses have seriously weakened the Congress's position in the opposition INDIA bloc. The party hoped that a good performance in these state elections would establish its dominance over the grouping. Instead, it has lost the moral authority to even lead such an alliance.

Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and even DMK - a Congress ally - will now demand the lion's share of seats in their states and will strongly resist a Congress leader being projected as the prime ministerial face of the alliance.

Ties between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, an important constituent of the INDIA bloc, have soured over seat adjustments in Madhya Pradesh. Both parties have hinted they could go it alone in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous and politically crucial state. The Congress has lost its bargaining power.

Regional parties like Janata Dal United (JDU) and Nitish Kumar have expressed their displeasure over the delay in seat sharing talks, the common minimum program, and the 2024 campaign because of the Congress's preoccupation with the state polls.

The Congress party is celebrating its victory in Telangana and its spokespersons are highlighting how they have trounced a regional party. Yet, the party is, in many ways, dependent on regional parties to defeat the BJP.

The Congress didn't have the wherewithal to beat the BJP on its own as its presence was limited to 261 seats (less than 50% of house strength) in 2019. Here is where the issue gets complicated.

The Congress won Karnataka earlier this year gaining largely at the expense of regional party Janata Dal Secular (JDS). It squeezed out HD Deve Gowda's party, making the contest bipolar as the BJP maintained its vote share. The Congress ate into the minority and Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes vote bank of the JDS, which suffered its second worst performance in history.

It is a similar story in Telangana, where the Congress gained 8% ST, 13% SC and 5% Muslim support at the cost of the BRS, denting almost 10% of the vote share of the KCR-led party. The BJP too gained 7% vote share in the state. Again, the Congress gained at the expense of a regional party without touching the support base of the BJP.

The Congress has lost significant support of OBCs, SC-ST, and Muslims to regional parties in the north and south, like SP, RJD, TMC, AAP, BRS, YSR Congress Party, BJD, and NCP. The core voters of many regional parties are complementary to the Congress.

The JDS formed an alliance for the first time with the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, and transferred its vote base to the grand old party in seats it did not contest, including its key Vokkaliga base.

These voters, including members of the minority community, did not return to the JDS in the 2023 Karnataka election, leaving it with half its previous tally.

This is what regional parties are apprehensive of, and this fear could grow stronger after the Congress's Telangana victory. Any regional party collaborating with the Congress could permanently lose its Muslim and SC-ST vote base to it.

For the Congress too, it is far easier to make a dent in the vote share of regional parties than the BJP. The BJP enjoys the support of the upper castes and OBCs (Other Backward Classes), two sections that have proved difficult for the Congress to crack for years. The caste census dice it has thrown is not working, as the state election results reveal.

The Congress has called for the next meeting of the INDIA bloc partners on December 6 in Delhi. That meeting promises to be turbulent, with some parties already taking aim at the Congress and what some of them describe as its "zamindari mindset".

JDU leader Nikhil Mandal, slamming the Congress leadership over the party's triple defeat, suggested that the INDIA alliance should be led by his boss, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He said the Congress ignored the opposition alliance because of its fixation with the state elections and still did not perform. Nitish Kumar, he added, was the architect of the alliance and is capable of navigating the ship through choppy waters. Trinamool Congress spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said on social media, "In the three states, it is more of a failure of the Congress than the success of the BJP".

With a confident Prime Minister Narendra Modi predicting a hat-trick in 2024, the main opposition party is back to square one after a successful Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka victories earlier this year. Its poor performance in the Hindi heartland and victory in Telangana versus a regional party has complicated matters for a fragile opposition alliance.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.