Crowd pullers have been scarce in the Congress in Tamil Nadu since the passing away of G K Moopanar in 2001. Still, the handful turnout at veteran Congressman P Chidambaram’s public meetings comes as a telling commentary on the pathetic state of India’s oldest political party.
Leaving aside the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, UPA corruption scandals and the perceived ‘NaMo Wave’, which have influenced other parties to “electorally orphan” the Congress, it is worth examining political factors that have contributed to this. Observers point out that the mushrooming of regional parties with select but concentrated vote banks beginning with the electoral blooming of the PMK in 1989 to the dilution of the famed “MGR Formula” in the late nineties have resulted in obliterating the electoral relevance Congress.
Under the ‘MGR Formula’, so named after its architect M G Ramachandran, the late AIADMK founder and Chief Minister between 1977 and 1987, seats were shared between the Congress and the AIADMK on a 70:30 basis. As per this, while in Lok Sabha elections the Congress would contest in 70% of the available seats, in the Assembly elections, it would get to field candidates only in 30% of the constituencies.
This arrangement conceptualised in 1984 both due to electoral arithmetic advantage as well as to keep a national party in good humour during the era of ‘Article 356’, was followed until 1996, nearly nine years after MGR’s death.
In today’s technological parlance, one could call that era as a 2.5 version for the Congress as Tamil Nadu’s polity back then had space for what political researcher Andrew Wyat described in his book ‘Party System in South India’ as the “two-and-a-half” party system - the AIADMK, DMK and the Congress. Essentially this meant that the Congress, with its half (0.5) voter influencing capacity, was indispensable to winning an election for the AIADMK and DMK. Except in 1996 when the ‘MGR Formula’ failed due a wave in favour of the DMK-TMC alliance, it had worked to the mutual benefit of the AIADMK and Congress. The formula faced its first threat in 1998 when AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa sewed up a winning alliance with the BJP, PMK and MDMK.
In the LS polls held the following year, she forced a weakened Congress to agree to contest a mere 11 seats. The Congress could never revive the ‘MGR Formula’ after that.
Thus from Version 2.5, the Congress is now in the 4.1 era. But unlike a software upgrade, the hard reality for the Congress is that this version is a political downgrade with its position being reduced to an insignificant 0.1 in this summer’s polls.