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Listless Cong hopes to break the duck

The party had failed to win even a single seat in the last Delhi elections in 2015
The Congress had ruled Delhi for 15 consecutive years under the leadership of Sheila Dikshit
The Congress had ruled Delhi for 15 consecutive years under the leadership of Sheila Dikshit

Sanjay K. Jha   |   New Delhi   |   Published 03.02.20, 08:40 PM

The Congress participation in the Delhi elections can be summed up in three words: “Seatein toh ayengi (Should win a few seats, at least)”.

Opening the account is indeed a question of prestige for the Congress, which had failed to win even a single seat in the last Delhi elections in 2015.


That the shock of the “duck” still persists became apparent when three senior state Congress politicians came up with the same response to a question about the party’s prospects: “Seatein toh ayengi.”

Nobody in the Congress is quoting any numbers or suggesting the party is in the running for a majority in the 70-member House. Yet there’s an undercurrent of hope about pulling off a few surprises, with several candidates fighting valiantly on the strength of their personal clout.

Although the communal polarisation engineered by the BJP has further dampened the spirit of the Congress top brass, these candidates haven’t given up.

“At least 18 to 20 candidates are fighting well, and we won’t be surprised if some of them pull it off,” a senior Delhi Congress politician told The Telegraph.

He admitted that the perception of a straight fight between the BJP and the ruling Aam Aadmi Party couldn’t be changed because of a poor campaign, but asserted: “This does not mean we are not in the battlefield. Our campaign is localised and focused on constituency-level dynamics, and some of our candidates have demonstrated greater energy than others.”

The Congress had ruled Delhi for 15 consecutive years under the charismatic leadership of Sheila Dikshit, who had helped foster a crop of politicians who established an emotional connect with the voters in their areas.

The “18 to 20 candidates” being viewed as potential winners are from among these politicians or their relatives, and they are sparing no effort to claw their little fiefs back from the AAP.

The Congress lost its Dalit-Muslim support base to the AAP following the massive anti-corruption movement that was played out in Delhi during UPA II rule and transformed RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal into a mass leader and now chief minister.

The party’s vote share fell from over 40 per cent to 24.5 per cent in 2013 and then to 9.65 per cent in 2015. The Congress had with its eight seats propped up a Kejriwal government in 2013, a strategy that boomeranged with the AAP winning 67 of the 70 seats in 2015 while the Congress scored a zero.

Although the 2019 Lok Sabha elections had spurred hopes of a revival with the Congress’s vote share jumping to 22.63 per cent against the AAP’s 18.2, the party failed to capitalise on the opportunity.

Rahul Gandhi’s resignation after the general election loss triggered a leadership crisis in Delhi and within the high command, leaving the Congress adrift. The BJP, with its 56.86 per cent votes in the parliamentary polls from Delhi, emerged as the main challenger to the AAP, although its lack of a credible face in Delhi to counter Kejriwal has been a severe handicap.

A CSDS opinion poll in December suggested an overwhelming endorsement of Kejriwal’s performance.

The campaign had therefore started amid expectations of Kejriwal easily returning to power, diluting the Congress high command’s interest in the election. The BJP too began with little hope but its resilience and resources kept it in the fight, and now the party has grabbed at the Shaheen Bagh protests to drag Kejriwal out of his comfort zone.

Although Kejriwal has prevented a large-scale shift of his support base with smart strategies to counter the attempts to raise the communal temperature, the Congress has got squeezed out of what could have been a triangular fight.

The Congress high command has largely stayed aloof, leaving the individual candidates to fend for themselves. While Union home minister Amit Shah has moved heaven and earth to create the perception of a close fight, the Congress has barely resisted its marginalisation.

Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are set to start campaigning only from Tuesday, four days before the voting. Nor have the party candidates received any significant support from the other leaders who could have swayed certain groups of voters.

For instance, although Delhi has a sizeable Bihari vote, the Congress has hardly got any leaders from the eastern state to campaign despite having allied with the Rashtriya Janata Dal for the first time.

Shatrughan Sinha has campaigned only for Kirti Azad’s wife Poonam so far although over a dozen Congress candidates had sought his presence in their constituencies.

The second big chunk of Delhi’s voters is Punjabi, but Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh arrived only on Monday, to campaign for state unit chief Subhash Chopra’s daughter.

The charismatic Navjot Singh Sidhu, named among the star campaigners, has been missing from the action so far.

Unless the Congress has a hidden strategy to help the AAP, nothing can explain such self-destructive apathy on the part of a party that recently received unexpected electoral boosts in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.

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