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Behind Sonia Gandhi's belligerence against Narendra Modi lay bid to reclaim Congress' leadership of Opposition

When a batter tries to hit every ball out of the park regardless of where it is pitched, you know that either a rank tailender is at work or we are into the slog overs. Now, even if the NDA decides to advance the date of general elections, we'll have to wait till December. These are clearly not the slog overs yet and Sonia Gandhi isn't a rookie. So what was she trying to do on Friday in Mumbai at the India Today conclave? As we shall see, she was trying to do several things at once.

On the face of it, through her speech, Sonia was evidently gunning for Narendra Modi and blaming him for every real and perceived ill that currently plagues India. While that is obvious, it is also unexceptionable.

At a subtler level, Sonia was trying to reclaim Congress's space and mantle of leadership among the Opposition. Naturally, the easiest way to do so would be to make the Modi government the target of excoriating rhetoric. Brand Modi is so strong that political careers can be made or resurrected by ricocheting off it. Sonia, a craftier politician than many give her credit for, would have hoped to create enough noise in both mainstream and social media to place Congress at the forefront of the Opposition ranks ahead of the 2019 battle.

This is crucial because Congress's leadership has come under question after a string of listless results and talks of a "third front" have started swirling again, led by the likes of Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and even NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. The latter, in fact, is holding a meeting of anti-BJP parties on 27 and 28 March in New Delhi and recently sent Praful Patel to Bengal to secure Mamata's participation.

File image of Sonia Gandhi. PTI

File image of Sonia Gandhi. PTI

What would have spiked Sonia's concern is that some Opposition leaders are pledging equidistance from Congress. In KCR's words, according to a News18 report: "There is a serious need to bring change in national politics. Seventy years have passed since Independence and out of those 70 years, 64 years were ruled by either BJP or Congress. Even after 70 years, people are suffering and they don’t even have water to drink… It can be a third front or anything… It is unification of the people of India and not just some political parties. And this will surely be minus BJP and Congress, no doubt about that."

While Pawar is planning to hold meetings and KCR is calling for a "third front" sans the Congress and BJP, Mamata is busy blaming Rahul Gandhi for the Congress's North East debacle. Soon after the results were out, the TMC chief told the media that Rahul was wrong to turn down her invitation to join hands for the Tripura Assembly polls. "Tripura is the outcome of CPM’s surrender and Congress’ failure," she declared.

It is not a secret that Mamata has a very poor opinion of Rahul's political acumen and would rather do business with Sonia instead. Things, however, have become a tad complicated at the change of baton in Congress. Other constituents of this 'third front' are equally wary of Rahul. RJD chief Lalu Yadav, for instance, last year had requested the presence of Sonia or Priyanka Gandhi for his "BJP bhagao desh bachao" rally last May. The Telegraph had reported that in a phone call, Lalu apparently told Sonia, "You should come, but if for some reason you cannot, kindly send Priyanka Gandhi for the rally."

This presents a problem of legitimacy for the Congress, one which the wily Sonia sought to address by claiming that in 2019, Opposition parties must keep aside all their differences to unite against the "oppressive" Modi regime "in the larger interest" of the nation. Unspoken in the "selfless" call is the message that no formation can afford to keep the Congress out.

She said, "We have worked together earlier. In Parliament, there is co-ordination, especially in the Rajya Sabha… It is difficult for all the parties including ours. At the national level, we can come together on some issues. But at the ground level, we are opponents. There is a lot of pressure from all parties, including ours, like in West Bengal and many other states. It is a difficult task… But if all of us think of the larger picture...if we feel and care for the country, we have to sink the local differences."

Sonia thundered that in 2019, "we are going to come back. We are not going to let them come back to power". She even went on to claim that "achhe din will sink BJP like India Shining did" . Whether or not that happens is for the voters to decide. There was, however, a touch of arrogance and a sense of entitlement in her words, which seemed a little misplaced.

After all, the Congress's performance in recently concluded Assembly polls in three north-eastern states has been dismal. In Meghalaya, the only state where it managed a few seats, Congress tally was down to 21 from 29 in 2013. In Nagaland, Congress failed to open account whereas it had won eight in 2013. Its vote share in this Christian-majority state crashed from 24.89 percent to just 2.1 percent while BJP posted a handsome increase. Similarly in Tripura, Congress's vote share nosedived from a healthy 36.53 percent in 2013 to a paltry 1.8 percent this year. Needless to say, it didn't win any seat.

If we scratch the surface, the much-hyped recent bypoll results also look less than glamorous for Congress.

In the two Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh that it retained — Kolaras and Mungaoli — Congress has been in power since 2013. What should worry Sonia is that in both these seats, Congress' vote share has suffered a drastic downward revision. In Mungaoli, for instance, Congress's margin came down from about 20,000 votes to just 2,000-odd votes. In Kolaras, the margin was down to around 8,000 votes from nearly 25,000 in 2013. In both these seats, the BJP has substantially increased its share even after a 15-year reign. For all its bravado before the media, infighting has started over this erosion.

As Economic Times notes in a report, "that these seats fell in the parliamentary constituency of party’s CM face probable Jyotiraditya Scindia, who relentlessly campaigned here, is only expected to increase the tussle among state leaders on the point whether Scindia can lead the party to a win in the state eight months later."

It is only in Rajasthan that Congress's prospects look good. The party won two bypoll seats and also performed well in local civic body elections. It is tough to argue, however, that a good show in Rajasthan is enough to convince Sonia that Congress is ready to unseat BJP in 2019 when the grand old party's performance everywhere else is taking a beating.

We may, therefore, look at the other possibility, that Sonia's "belligerence" against Modi — which mainly was a mishmash of old and tired rhetoric before a sympathetic audience — reflected more a desperation to shore up the party's morale ahead of upcoming crucial states, especially as party president Rahul Gandhi was abroad, busy making a meal of himself  before the world. Sonia showed that Rahul has still a lot to learn.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 20:08 PM

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