The Congress (I) began the last Lok Sabha election with a major handicap -- not one of the four southern states was ruled by it at the time. E K Nayanar still presided over the misgovernment of Kerala, Karunanidhi was praising Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chandrababu Naidu had just forged an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the J H Patil ministry was on its last legs in Karnataka. Of course, given the reality of the anti-incumbency factor in modern Indian politics, this was as much of a blessing as anything else especially in Karnataka where the Vidhan Soudha polls were being held at the same time as those to the Lok Sabha.
Today, it is a different story. According to everything I have heard, the Congress (I) is better placed on the east coast than it was in 1999. Some may find this a surprising conclusion. After all, the highly successful Telugu Desam-BJP alliance continues to hold centre-stage in Andhra Pradesh, while Sonia Gandhi's coalition with Jayalalithaa has completely broken down. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Congress (I) is far from being alone in these states.
It has joined hands with the Telengana Rashtra Samiti in Andhra Pradesh. This is a double-edged sword since the Telengana Rashtra Samiti is pledged to carving a separate state out of Andhra Pradesh, something that could rile voters in the Rayalseema and Coastal Andhra areas. On the other hand, in 1999 the Congress (I) won just five of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, which suggests that it has little left to lose and much to gain!
Moving on to Tamil Nadu, the Congress (I) has tried to compensate for the loss of Jayalalithaa's support by cosying up to the DMK and a clutch of smaller regional parties. The calculation seems to be that things may have turned out for the best since it is now Jayalalithaa's turn to bear the brunt of incumbency. Once again, the Congress (I) seems to have more to gain if only because it has so little left to lose.
Paradoxically, I think it is the states that currently have Congress chief ministers -- Kerala and Karnataka -- that are proving to be a major headache for the Congress (I). I do not refer to the anti-incumbency factor; if neither the A K Antony nor the S M Krishna ministries has lived up to its full potential then they have not really done particularly badly. In fact, I believe both have performed creditably, the only disappointment being thanks to the hyperbole they generated when they came to power. Nor is the principal Opposition party in both states the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, the BJP and the Janata Dal in Karnataka -- all that great a threat. No, the true dilemma for the Congress (I) in Kerala and Karnataka is the old one of tackling dissent.
S M Krishna has seen an old foe -- and former chief minister -- Bangarappa crossing over to join the BJP ranks. His southern neighbour's running feud with the aged Karunakaran is now the stuff of legend. A major problem for both chief ministers, the southern stars of the Congress (I), is the attitude of their high command.
Either through fear or as an act of deliberate policy, or possibly a combination of both, Sonia Gandhi has consistently refused to permit her Chief Ministers any real freedom of action. She was, for instance, instrumental in getting K Muraleedharan, son of the rebellious Karunakaran, into the Antony cabinet. This, of course, sent out precisely the wrong signals to all other potential rebels.
Nobody says that Sonia Gandhi suspects the painfully honest A K Antony of harbouring secret ambitions. She laughed it off even when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad mischievously described him as a 'model' chief minister! (Contrast that with the cold shoulder Najma Heptullah got after she made the mistake of sharing a stage with the sarsanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.)
But there has been a certain mistrust of the canny chief minister of Karnataka almost ever since he rose to his present position. Truth be told, he has never given her any reason to suspect his loyalty but she prefers to put her faith in whispers and rumours. Anyone who carries tales about 'Vokkaliga domination' is sure to find at least one sympathetic ear in 10, Janpath. (Ironically, one of S M Krishna's major political opponents, the former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, is from that selfsame caste.) The result is that there has been open speculation about S M Krishna being replaced should the Congress return to power.
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu may elect more Congressmen to the Lok Sabha than they did last time. But it will be of little avail should Sonia Gandhi's silliness reduce the returns from the other southern states.