The BJP's campaign strategy is to turn the Lok Sabha election into a presidential contest and contrast the appeal of "decisive leadership" and "political stability" with the uncertainty of a hung Parliament, the race for leadership that such a situation may spring and the political instability of a coalition government devoid of a strong core. It stands to reason, therefore, the Opposition’s gameplan would hinge around refuting the BJP’s pitch, projecting a semblance of unity — at least not attack each other in public — and give the electorate enough reasons to consider that a coalition government, too, may bring political stability.
Mamata Banerjee, the wily, ambitious politician from West Bengal perhaps understood this dynamic way ahead of her peers in the Opposition. Her mega ‘United India’ rally in Kolkata in January where she paraded leaders from 20 Opposition parties on stage, was a message to both the BJP and the electorate that unity of purpose might be enough to paper over the cracks of inherent contradictions. The rally was pure optics, but it created headlines and got the BJP talking. The fact that it became the subject of barbs from BJP leaders, including the prime minister, indicated that a purpose was served.
In terms of arithmetic, Opposition unity poses enough reasons for the BJP to worry. But the problem is elsewhere. Arun Jaitley’s term — a coalition of rivals — to describe the grand alliance is derisive but not inaccurate. Regional parties that have national ambitions face a constant conflict between consolidating own positions, maximising own strengths for a better bargaining chip and arriving at an intra-alliance consensus. Often the tensions are so strong and position so intrinsically paradoxical that a consensus appears impossible.
This also happens because Opposition unity is incumbent on just one purpose — to oust Narendra Modi — and has no ideological, political or even strategic base. The parties also work at cross purposes. Some may prefer a hung Parliament to emerge as a kingmaker, some may want to emerge strongest to stake a claim for the prime minister’s chair while some may find it easier to fish in troubled waters.
There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, but it is not a unidimensional power game either. Politics is also people, grassroots workers, cadres and local leaders. Many of these parties are faced with another tension — striking a tactical alliance with a regional rival to stave off the BJP threat and risk a backlash from own cadres. It is here that a leader’s mettle is tested, tactical acumen is adjudged, and it becomes apparent whether the leader has it in her or him to turn challenges into opportunities.
If Rahul Gandhi fancies himself as a prime ministerial candidate and wants to resurrect Congress’ fortunes to the extent that it may form the nucleus of Opposition unity, then he must find a way to make the alliances work despite the contradictions and differences instead of highlighting the schisms or proving true Jaitley’s contention that “the mahamilawat gathbandhan unquestionably promises only political instability. Such non-ideological alliances have only lasted for a few months. That is the unambiguous lesson of history".
If that is the job of the Congress president, who appears to be Modi’s closest competitor for the top job (the distance between the two is huge though), then he is making a hash of it.
Instead of highlighting the reasons why the electorate should opt for mahagathbandhan candidates, Rahul is underscoring the reasons why voters should not do so. Instead of showcasing an image of strength and unity, the Congress president is underlining the chasms that lie beneath talks of grand alliance and stressing on the fragility of the concept.
In effect, Rahul is proving BJP’s charge true and making Modi appear stronger in comparison. If this is Congress’s political tactic — to campaign in favour of BJP — then Rahul is admirably discharging his duty.
In West Bengal, for instance, Congress is in a moribund state. Its influence that even in the best of times during the Left Front rule did not extend beyond a few pockets has diminished further under Trinamool Congress hegemony. The party’s health is a mirror image of its condition elsewhere. Stronger candidates are walking over to the other side, existing leaders are ineffective, workers are demoralised and the party structure is in a shambles. There was some talk of an alliance with the Left to take on the TMC juggernaut, but all talks have now broken down. Congress has no influence left but the arrogance remains intact.
When Congress’s future in the state is so bleak, it would have been understandable had Rahul held back his barbs against the TMC during his rallies in the state. Mamata is a vital cog in the grand alliance wheels. She brings to the table her guile and her party is expected to seal a sizeable chunk of the 42 Lok Sabha seats on offer. Keeping Mamata in good humour is crucial not just for Congress that hopes to tag along with regional chieftains to remain relevant, but also good optics for Opposition unity. It is not as if Rahul may set the Ganga afire with his speeches and magically transform Congress’ fortunes in Bengal.
We saw an extraordinary scene on Saturday. While addressing a rally in Malda Lok Sabha constituency that had elected former Congress leader, the late ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury eight straight times, Rahul let it rip against Mamata, comparing her to Modi.
“Modiji and Mamatadi... both the leaders are running governments without consulting anyone. Don’t you think there should be a people’s voice?” posed Rahul. He said both leaders give “never-ending speeches and only make false promises. Mamata did nothing for the poor farmers and unemployed youth,” said the Congress president and accused the Bengal chief minister of running a dictatorial regime.
“Only one person is running Bengal. She does not bother to consult anyone. She does what she wants to do.... Bengal is being run by just one person. She neither talks to anyone nor takes anybody’s suggestion. She does whatever she feels like,” said Rahul.
To rev up the cadres in an area where the party hopes to do well is one thing, and to attack openly the grand alliance lynchpin on her home ground is quite another. It not only weakens the idea of Opposition unity but sends confusing signals to voters who may find greater resonance with BJP’s narrative that it is a coalition of bickering opportunists.
The TMC was not amused. Partha Chatterjee, the party’s secretary general, made his impression of Rahul’s political acumen quite clear.
“I am surprised that Rahul Gandhi couldn’t see any development in Bengal under the Mamata Banerjee government. His drawing a parallel with the preceding Left Front rule doesn’t also reflect the reality. I thought that Rahul Gandhi has become mature and the development in Bengal won’t miss his eyes. But I was proved wrong. Rahul remains as he was.”
Down in the south, Kerala chief minister is equally unimpressed with the buzz that Rahul may contest the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections from the Wayanad constituency along with his traditional bastion Amethi. Such an impression has gained ground in recent times and fueled speculation — led by BJP’s charge — that the Congress is apprehensive about retaining the Amethi seat this time faced with a spirited challenge from Union minister Smriti Irani.
Vijayan, however, is of the opinion that Congress should drop the Wayanad idea because it sends all the wrong signals.
“His (Rahul’s) arrival in Kerala, I believe, is not going to have a major impact in the electoral battle. But, with this move, the Congress would be sending out a message that it is not the BJP they are fighting, but the LDF (Left Front). Congress needs to think what message they are trying to send out to the nation.”
The Kerala chief minister’s words and TMC’s reaction to Rahul’s rally in Bengal buttress the impression that Congress central leadership is clueless and rudderless about an electoral strategy. While the BJP appears focused and clear on its strategy, Congress is finding it difficult to come to terms with the laws of coalition politics, the reality of its political insignificance and its desire to resurrect the party’s fortunes. Above all, Rahul’s missteps bolster BJP’s campaign pitch that grand alliance cannot be a viable alternative to Modi.
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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2019 16:02:36 IST