Battle for Karnataka: Rahul Gandhi's 'victory claim' shows Congress happy playing 'second fiddle' ahead of 2019

Minutes after BS Yeddyurappa announced his resignation on the floor of Karnataka Assembly, pulling the curtains on his two-day tenure as chief minister, Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee took to Twitter to convey her sentiments on the issue.

What she said in her tweet was very revealing, an indicator as to how the alignment of Opposition forces could possibly look like in the run-up to the 2019 General elections:

It is poignant to note here that she didn't name Rahul Gandhi. She did name Congress in the credit list at number four, after the people of Karnataka, HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy, but not the Congress president. Her message was loud and clear, it was a moment of victory for the "regional front", not the Congress-led erstwhile UPA.

By saying so, she took the sheen away from Rahul's press conference at Congress' 24 Akbar Road headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday evening. In the conference, Rahul claimed the victory and announced that his party was willing to work with regional parties in states of their dominance. "No one is untouchable" for the Congress, he said.

Tweets by other regional leaders like Akhilesh Yadav and Chandrababu Naidu too didn't credit Rahul. They did, however, hail democracy but stayed away from giving credit either to the Congress or to its president. In other words, they are denying Rahul of his self-proclaimed right as the frontrunner to become "prime minister in 2019", provided the Opposition can muster up the numbers.

 Battle for Karnataka: Rahul Gandhis victory claim shows Congress happy playing second fiddle ahead of 2019

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

More so, in his press conference, Rahul interpreted Yeddyurappa and BJP's inability to muster the required number (falling short of a majority by eight in a house of 224) as a vote against BJP and a mandate for Congress, but none of his present or potential allies in the future saw it like that.

They see it as a victory of the "regional front". Mamata had earlier made her thoughts public when the Congress was pushing for the impeachment of Chief Justice of India Deepak Misra. She had also indicated that Rahul didn't have the capacity to be the leader of an 'alternate front'. In her tweet on Saturday, she has in a way reiterated the same position.

Rahul's claim that the outcome was a victory for Congress and JD(S) in Karnataka is also flawed. People had voted to throw the Congress out of power in the state. Congress, which ruled the state for last five years, was reduced from 122 to 78 in the state Assembly, with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah losing one of two seats he contested, winning the other by a slender margin. Half of the party's previous cabinet ministers also lost their respective elections and it counted losses all across the state. But then a parliamentary democracy is about numbers in the Assembly or in Parliament.

The Congress will now have the pleasure of forming a government led by its newly minted post-poll ally Kumaraswamy. In that sense, the Congress leadership, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul in-particular, can have the satisfaction of succeeding in keeping the BJP away from power by announcing "unconditional support" to Deve Gowda's JD (S) and doing everything in their might to make Kumaraswamy the chief minister.

But, the fact remains that Congress, despite having 78 MLAs, has decided to play second fiddle to a party which has only 37 MLAs; a party whose influence is limited only to one particular part of the state.

Is playing second fiddle to regional parties in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and now Karnataka (which it ruled till a week back) going to be the new template for the Congress? In some sense, it could serve Congress' avowed purpose of keeping the BJP away from power wherever and howsoever it can. But, will that be of value to the party in the longer run, in terms of their organisational structure, workers' morale and Rahul's leadership?

Mamata has taken the initiative of becoming the spokesperson for the Opposition parties – or anti-Modi political formations. She is clear that the Congress is not going to be in the pole position vis-à-vis, Rahul.

The Congress, by virtue of being a 'Grand Old Party' with footprints all across the nation, had been the biggest party after BJP in Parliament in 2014. But crucially, the difference between Congress and Trinamool Congress was only 10 seats.

The other important point to note from Rahul's press conference after Yeddyurappa's resignation was repeated use of the word "secular" and the need for "secular parties" to come together. It should be recalled that since the Bihar Assembly elections took place in early 2015, Congress and its allied parties, along with all their supporters and sympathisers, had stopped using the word "secular" and refrained from any "secular (Congress and its allies) versus communal (BJP)" debates up until the results of the Karnataka elections recently.

The Congress and its strategists had devised that the "secular-communal" debate ultimately ends up helping the BJP, but Rahul seems to have other ideas. One can't predict as to how the return of the "secular-communal" debate is going to shape in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh, and then in the 2019 General elections.

But what is clear is that Rahul would need to work really hard to convince his present and future allies in different parts of the country that he has leadership potential. Congress wouldn't be very happy with Mamata 'red flagging' on a day when Rahul was attempting to claim a "victory in defeat" for himself and his party.

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Updated Date: May 19, 2018 21:29:15 IST