Reduced to its lowest electoral tally ever in the Lok Sabha, the 134-year-old Congress party faces a formidable opponent in the ruling BJP, which has captured the imagination of a large segment of voters with the Modi brand of muscular nationalism in an election that seems polarized along religious lines.
The Congress has tried to counter this surge of nationalism by promising a windfall of Rs 6,000 per month for 20 per cent of the country's poor. But political analysts believe this will not be enough to swing the election in its favour.
In 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the party had a 28 per cent vote share, but today the Congress is down to a 19.6 vote share. Even if the party adds another six to seven per cent votes, it may not be enough to take the party beyond 100 seats in the Lok Sabha.
According to recent opinion polls, the Congress’ vote share will increase this year compared to 2014, but it will need a massive swing against the BJP to raise its vote share in the Hindi belt states. Even a 5-6 per cent swing against the BJP may not affect the Saffron party’s chances in many of these states.
The wide gap in the vote share of the BJP and the Congress makes the task of the Congress extremely hard to push the BJP on the backfoot.
The Congress lacks the strength to take on the BJP on its own and has failed to form alliances that it badly needs to have an edge over its rival. The party failed to be part of the “Mahagathabandan” in Uttar Pradesh and has recently failed to form any alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi.
The Congress had demanded three seats in Delhi, where the AAP is in power. It had also rejected AAP’s offer for alliances in Haryana and Punjab.
The CVoter opinion poll gives an indication of why the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi is keen to sew up an alliance with the Congress. The seat share projections show that if these two parties do not come together, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would be in line to win all seven Lok Sabha seats from Delhi. However, if they come together, the UPA would get four seats and the NDA three.
In sharp contrast to the Congress, the BJP under party president Amit Shah has been stitching up alliances in various states and has also been generous in its seat sharing agreements with them. Many of Congress’ discussions with potential allies broke down because of its inability to accommodate the latter.
While Amit Shah has been visiting sulking allies in various states, Congress president Rahul Gandhi lacks the rapport with opposition leaders to stitch meaningful alliances in states where the party has been sidelined by the BJP and regional parties.
The Congress has an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, but not in Gujarat. In a divided Andhra, the Congress is now a marginal player. In Maharashtra which is the second biggest state by Lok Sabha seats, a steady stream of Congress leaders has crossed over to the BJP.
In Tamil Nadu, the party has aligned with the formidable Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; RLD in Bihar; and so on.
Political observers say the absence of pre-poll alliances is likely to dim the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) prospects. Recent opinion polls indicate that in Bihar the UPA would get four seats, in Gujarat it was likely to win only two seats, in Madhya Pradesh the UPA is expected to win six seats and in Maharashtra, the UPA could win 14 seats.
In a few states, though, the UPA is likely to hold its ground -- in Punjab the UPA could win 12 seats, in Tamil Nadu it could win 31 seats and in Jharkhand it is expected to win 10 seats.
The 'mahagathbandhan' alliance in Uttar Pradesh holds the key to UPA’s prospects in the general elections. While recent polls predict that the formation would get only four out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the politically important state, if the Congress-led alliance forges a last-minute post poll tie-up and becomes a part of the 'mahagathbandhan', this equation would change dramatically, giving the anti-NDA alliance 52 seats in all or a boost of 48 seats.
In terms of vote share projections given in the CVoter opinion poll, a pre-poll alliance would fetch it 30.4 per cent of the vote. It shows that only in a handful of states is the UPA ahead of the NDA in terms of vote share.
These are Kerala, where the opinion poll shows it could get 46.9 per cent of the vote as opposed to the NDA's 19.6; Punjab, where the UPA could get 36.3 per cent of the vote as opposed to the NDA's 33.4 per cent; Tamil Nadu, where the UPA could get 44.4 per cent of the vote compared to the NDA's 35.8 per cent; and Telangana, where the UPA is expected to get 28.1 per cent of the vote against the NDA's 14.2 per cent -- in case the Telengana Rashtra Samiti does not join the NDA alliance in a post poll scenario.
If some of the recent opinion polls have given the NDA under the BJP the lead in the game of numbers, the reasons are undoubtedly the effect of the Balakot air strikes and the latest shooting down of a satellite.
Opposition parties are at an advantage this year as unlike 2014, there is no palpable “Modi wave” this time around. However, opposition parties have failed to offer a viable alternative to Modi. There is no real contender for the prime minister post and Modi remains the most popular leader in the nation.
While multiple surveys have predicted an advantage for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, they also point that the alliance could just fall short of a majority.
With most opinion polls predicting its defeat, the UPA is reminding others of what happened in 2004 when all poll predictions talked of an NDA win under the Vajpayee government but the Congress-led UPA emerged victorious.
Whether history repeats itself will be for everyone to see on May 23.