A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here.
Around December of 2017, BJP and its supporters would take much delight in sharing the political map of India. Most states were marked in saffron, showing the victory march of the party across the country. The march began four years ago, when the BJP swept Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December of 2013. It intensified after the Modi wave of 2014. The BJP installed its first chief ministers in Haryana, Maharashtra and Assam. It stormed back to power with a three fourth majority in Uttar Pradesh. By the time the BJP swept away the 25 year old Communist government in Tripura in March 2018, it seemed like there was nothing the BJP could not do.
Unfortunately for the BJP, the only thing that map showed was how quickly things could change again. I remember saying this back then on Twitter. However, the good news for the BJP is that “Congress mukt Bharat” is still very much in progress. And getting worse and worse for the Congress. This was true back then. It is still true now.
What about Karnataka then? What about Himachal Pradesh? But these states were never Congress mukt. Because Congress mukt does not just mean that Congress has lost an election. It means the end of the Congress party as a political force. A situation where people have lost confidence in the Congress to even play the role of main opposition. Such as in Uttar Pradesh. Even though the BJP is strongest in Gujarat, the state is not Congress mukt. The BJP is much weaker in Bengal, but the state is still Congress mukt. The Congress may technically be part of the ruling coalition in Tamil Nadu, but the state is already Congress mukt.
You may verify this meaning in Modi’s speeches when he first spoke of Congress mukt Bharat in 2013. It was supposed to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of disbanding the Congress after independence.
But then, the BJP and its supporters got greedy. Flushed with success, they began claiming that a state is Congress mukt as s0on as a sitting Congress government loses an election. This worked well until late 2018, when the Congress had to defend in most states. But then the wheel began to turn. Now it is mostly BJP Chief Ministers facing elections. And now it is the turn of the Congress and its supporters to mock the BJP with things like “BJP mukt South India.” Both are wrong.
But go beyond the short sighted jibes on both sides. And you will see that the overall collapse of the Congress continues all across India. Here is a teaser. Those who remember the politics of the 1990s, or even the 2000s, would find it hard to imagine that the Congress could one day become a junior ally of the Thackerays in Maharashtra. Here is a tiny, more data based example. This month, the Congress lost a bypoll for the Jharsuguda seat in Odisha. In fact, it was wiped out, as it got just 2 percent of the vote. Would you believe this used to be a sitting seat for the Congress back in 2009? From 49 percent, its vote share fell to 45 percent, then 11 percent, and now just 2 percent. In the same time, the BJP has increased its votes from 11 percent to 33 percent. That is what Congress mukt looks like.
Congress is slowly disappearing as an opposition party
India’s eastern seaboard is dominated by regional parties. The problem for the Congress is that people no longer look to them even as an alternative in these states. Consider Odisha. The last time the Congress won was in 1995. Since then, they have not just lost repeatedly. Their vote share has also faded away. From almost 40 percent, to below 30 percent in 2009, then 25 percent in 2014, and just 16 percent in 2019. The BJP has improved its votes to 33 percent. Therefore, chances are that the entire opposition vote in Odisha will move to the BJP, leaving the Congress with nothing.
In Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the regional leaders broke away from the Congress. Today both Mamata Banerjee and Jagan Reddy rule their respective states with massive majorities. Remember that (united) Andhra Pradesh formed the bedrock of the two UPA victories in 2004 and 2009. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress now has just 1 percent of the vote. In Telangana, it is still the main opposition party. But that is more of a technicality. The BRS of K Chandrasekhar Rao focuses most of its attacks on the BJP today. Because that is where his real opposition now comes from. In Bengal, the contest is between TMC and the BJP. The Congress has less than 3 percent.
The Congress has no plans to check this decline. However, it does have an emotional support mechanism. It now labels these states as places where BJP is losing elections. I guess if the Congress is not even running, it cannot lose. And this phenomenon is no longer limited to the east coast. Less than 10 years ago, the Congress used to rule Delhi. Now it is not even in the contest. Although it is too early to say for sure, there are signs of this story repeating in Punjab. The Congress just lost the Jalandhar bypoll to AAP, in a Lok Sabha seat it had held since 1999. Its vote share fell to just 27 percent. The BJP contested the seat for the first time ever, and walked away with 15 percent.
Congress has been reduced to near zero in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar
Just 2.33 percent. That was the Congress vote share in Uttar Pradesh last year. While Congress has not won in Uttar Pradesh for a while now, it still had a few votes. In 2012, it was still above 10 percent, which came down to 6 percent in 2017. In 1997, Kalyan Singh had saved the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh with support from 22 defecting MLAs from the Congress. The Congress still had over 30 MLAs at the time. Today it has 2. Because Uttar Pradesh is so massive, even a small fraction of seats from the state can be significant. The state contributed 21 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress victory in 2009. How many could they win today?
In Bihar, the BJP is easily the number one party in “real” vote share (once you adjust for the confusion caused by parties contesting in alliance). The Congress is a poor fourth, perhaps even a fifth, behind the LJP. Arguably, the reason UPA narrowly lost in 2020 was because the Congress did so badly in the seats they were contesting. Again, the Congress gets away from this reality by counting the votes of any non-BJP party as if they were its own. But numbers do not lie. Sooner or later, the BJP will have its chief minister in Bihar, but the Congress has no chance.
On social media, one of the favorite pastimes of Indian liberals is abusing the so called BIMARU states, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Who will tell these people that six members of the Nehru family have been MPs from Uttar Pradesh? If the state is backward even today, whose fault is it?
In bipolar states, Congress weakens with every cycle
What about the states where the Congress is still one of the two main options before the people? Even there, the Congress keeps getting weaker. Take Madhya Pradesh. The Congress managed to come out ahead in 2018, but could not even touch the majority mark. Even then, its vote share was still below that of the BJP. Compare this to the BJP which won 3 successive terms with massive majorities. People still treat Congress as an option, but only just.
Or Rajasthan. The Congress still manages to rotate power with the BJP every five years. But look closer for the full story. The Assembly in Rajasthan has 200 seats. When the Congress wins, as in 2008 (96 seats) or in 2018 (100 seats), it barely touches the majority mark. The BJP won a majority for the first time in Rajasthan in 2003 (120 seats). When it won again in 2013, it got an astonishing 163 seats! Go back to the 1990s and you will see the opposite of this phenomenon. Back then it was the Congress which used to win huge majorities, such as 153 seats in 1998. When the BJP won in 1993, it had just 95 seats.
In stock market terms, therefore, the BJP sees cyclical downswings due to anti-incumbency, while the overall trend remains upwards. For the Congress, the long term trend is downwards.
Once you look for it, you see this pattern everywhere. The Congress managed to snatch Himachal Pradesh from the BJP in 2022. But the vote share difference was less than 1 percent. When the BJP won in 2017, it was ahead by almost 7 percent. Go back to the 1990s and you will see the opposite. The Congress winning big and losing small.
Because the long term trend for the Congress is always downward, sooner or later, a state will always slip out of its grasp. Just since 2019, the Congress has lost in two states where it was supposed to be the Congress’ “turn” to rule. In Uttarakhand in 2022 and in Kerala in 2021.
Then there is Gujarat. With just a half hearted six month campaign, the AAP took away 13 percent of the opposition vote, which resulted in a rout for the Congress. Why do Congress voters find it so easy to leave their party? This rarely happens to the BJP. Even though the BJP has been out of power for decades in Delhi for instance, its core vote of about 35 percent sticks with the party. When the AAP started out, it tried to grab the anti-Congress space in Delhi. But they soon realized it was easier for them to take away Congress votes than BJP votes. Now they are trying to do this nationally, from Goa to Gujarat. BJP voters don’t shift easily, Congress voters do.
In coalitions, Congress is losing the upper hand
Maharashtra has the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats. It used to be a Congress stronghold. From its formation in 1960, all the way till 2014, Maharashtra had a Congress Chief Minister for all but four years. By 1999, the Congress had lost the ability to win the state single-handedly. But it still managed to rule 3 successive terms as senior partner in a coalition. The Congress is now reduced to third place in its own coalition, and fourth overall. Across the state, the BJP is now a clear No. 1. The BJP might still struggle against the combined might of the Thackerays, the NCP and the Congress. But that alliance exists precisely because the BJP by itself is so far ahead of anyone else.
The same thing is happening to the Congress in coalitions everywhere. Few would remember today that when Mamata Banerjee won in 2011, the Congress was a coalition partner. In fact, it won a respectable 42 seats. By 2016, the TMC no longer needed the Congress. In 2021, the Congress did not win a single seat in the Assembly. In the 2000s, the Congress was an essential part of the RJD led alliance in Bihar. By 2020, the Congress had become almost a burden. The reason that the RJD lost narrowly in 2020 was the fact that the Congress did so poorly in the seats it contested. In Jharkhand, the BJP and the JMM have worked together many times in the past. But now the BJP and the JMM have firmly established themselves as the two opposite poles in the state. The Congress is reduced to a junior ally of the JMM.
BJP is still growing, its best days still ahead
You have to wonder. When the Congress shows off a “BJP mukt South India,” which state exactly are they celebrating? Is it Karnataka, where the BJP has now been number one in four successive Lok Sabha elections? Even in its crushing defeat in 2023, they have held onto their 36 percent vote, same as the last time. Or is the Congress celebrating Telangana, where they seem set to lose their status as main opposition? Is it Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress is likely to lose deposits? Is it Kerala, where the CPIM beat them in 2021 and became the first incumbent to be re-elected since 1977? Or is it Tamil Nadu, where they have not won since 1962?
The BJP just suffered a huge setback in Karnataka. But it is still growing in so many states. In Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, and Telangana. It is only just beginning to set a bit of the agenda even in Tamil Nadu. Where on the map of India is the Congress growing? The BJP has not lost its footprint in any state where it has been a player. It was losing relevance in Uttar Pradesh for about 10 years. But then it came roaring back. You can call a state “BJP mukt” only if BJP has ever been a player there, but has now become irrelevant. Except there is not even one such state.
The Lok Sabha gap between BJP and Congress
The story is perhaps best captured by looking at Lok Sabha numbers. In 2024, the BJP’s most optimistic opponents talk of reducing the party to “just 200 seats.” As you might notice, this is above the 182 seats that Atalji had when he became Prime Minister. In other words, the BJP’s (possible) new lows are above its earlier highs. That is the long term upswing.
Winning after two successive terms is not easy. The last time it happened was in 1962. But the country has changed a lot since 1962. And so it is that the Congress is desperately hoping for a 2004 like verdict in 2024. But the 2004 tally of 145 seats for the Congress included 29 from (united) Andhra Pradesh, 12 from Gujarat, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Assam, 7 from Delhi and 6 from Bengal. That adds up to 72 seats. In 2004,, the Congress was 6 seats ahead of the BJP. In 2024, how many of these 72 seats do you think the Congress will win? Are there states where the Congress can make up the losses? Which ones? Do the arithmetic. For the BJP, simply add up the likely sweeps in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. You already have 120 seats.
Of course, this does not mean that 2024 is a done deal for the BJP. Back in 2010, Chidambaram had said that the BJP would not come to power for at least 10 years. So you can never be sure of anything in politics. But is it now a given that the BJP will remain the single largest party in 2024? Is the family of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi so reduced in its ambitions? The BJP boldly announced “Mission 272+” before the 2014 election. Does the Congress have a number in mind for 2024?
Let me conclude by remembering a stunningly farsighted prediction made by the great Lal Krishna Advani. The Congress will not even get 100 seats in the next Lok Sabha election, he had written in his blog in 2012. Congress mukt Bharat: perhaps the formidable “maharathi” of Indian politics was the first to see it coming.