In Mahagathbandhan, is Congress cumbersome baggage or secret driving force ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls?

  • Regional parties like AAP in Delhi and BJD in Odisha have conclusively denounced the Congress

  • Mamata Banerjee ended up drawing leaders from around the country in a rally that did not centre itself around the Congress

  • The Congress's support might be something Opposition leaders might have to bank on after the election

The Congress will, in 2019, fight its 17th Lok Sabha elections. No other party in the country has fought as many; no other party has flitted in and out of public acceptance as many times as the Congress has. Faced with the natural political onus that comes with being the largest party in Opposition to the BJP government, the Congress is the de facto centre point of any anti-incumbent alliance. Or is it?

Ahead of the 2019 General Election, amidst significant third front meetings between the K Chandrashekar Rao-led TRS and the Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR(C) in the South and a Congress-exclusive alliance between BSP's Mayawati and SP's Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, the role of the Congress as the rallying force of any opposition movement is not an assured one.

 In Mahagathbandhan, is Congress cumbersome baggage or secret driving force ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls?

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Twitter @INCIndia

It is not just that regional parties like AAP in Delhi and BJD in Odisha have conclusively denounced the Congress while TDP in Andhra Pradesh is strongly rumoured to be considering not allying with the party, it is the fact that a mega Opposition rally helmed by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee ended up drawing leaders from around the country without centering itself around the Congress, that draws the most attention to the Congress's centrality in a scenario that would give rise to a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance).

If the rally in Kolkata's Brigade parade grounds is proof, then the Congress no longer needs to be the central attraction in a grand Opposition show of power. The party's leaders too, seem to have grasped that, with Rahul and Sonia Gandhi not attending the rally themselves but instead sending their trusted lieutenant Mallikarjun Kharge to it. Kharge, a political veteran, is hardly a crowd puller. The rally attendees most resounding applauses were for the likes of BJP dissident Shatrughan Sinha, AAP's Arvind Kejriwal, TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu, JDS scion HD Kumaraswamy, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav and Mamata Banerjee, all of whom reflect regional concerns.

But while the party's central leadership no longer need to be a part of an Opposition campaign rally to deem it a proverbial success, its power in the Parliament is beyond doubt, and its support might be something that Opposition leaders who have been quick to shun the Congress may be secretly banking on. With regional parties realising their strength, reported DNA, the belief is that if they come together and achieve a good number in 2019, the Congress-led UPA will have no option but to support the mahagathbandhan and let the regional parties decide the country's next Prime Minister.

The idea that the Congress remains the hidden fulcrum in any polltime alliance was also tacit in what Tejashwi Yadav, whose RJD party is one of the Congress's most unfaltering allies, said. Tejashwi's recent assertion that the Congress is "best equipped" to lead the opposition's charge against the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, came across as an exhortation to the grand old party to assume its "leadership role" in an alliance of regional parties.

"I don't find anything wrong if the Congress plays a pivotal role in forming the alliance or taking the leadership role of the alliance into the elections. But having said that, they have to accept that each state has different ground realities," the National Herald quoted Tejashwi as having told PTI.

Tejashwi's stress on the Congress's need to allow regional outfits to occupy the "frontal-attack position against the BJP" in states where it is not active is also a plea to the party to abandon its highhandedness when it comes to seat sharing. This request for "compromise" is one that local Congress leaders have made as well. A case in point is Bihar Congress chief Madan Mohan Jha, who said, "In Bihar, all alliance partners will have to make compromise[s] on the seat-sharing agreement," reported India Today.

File photo of the crowd at Mamata Banerjee's rally in Kolkata. PTI

File photo of the crowd at Mamata Banerjee's rally in Kolkata. PTI

While seat sharing with the Congress amid an air of convivial understanding might be the lot for a party not in power, like Tejashwi's RJD or Sharad Pawar's NCP in Bihar, the Congress compulsion is not exactly a welcome one for regional forces already in power in their respective state governments and already commanding enormous supporter bases. While BJD chief Naveen Patnaik has vowed equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP, the AAP has already started campaigning for all seven parliamentary constituencies in Delhi by appealing to voters to not waste their votes on the Congress, reported Daily O.

The Congress alliance with the Samajwadi Party in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election did not help Akhilesh Yadav much, and neither did the one with the TDP in Telangana, which vastly reduced Chandrababu Naidu's seat share in the state.

With a vastly compromised state-level influence, the Congress now battles its own national ambitions as it refrains from announcing unflinching support to a mahagathbandhan. Political analysts point out that the image problem posed by the still towering face of Narendra Modi is one that has no solution in the Congress. The Congress, that Moneycontrol illustrates, should have built an anti-government, anti-BJP momentum on the basis of Rahul Gandhi's prime ministerial promise, has still not done so.

Meanwhile, even as Rahul seems to have taken up the mantle of the alliance which ostensibly formed after Mamata's Kolkata rally by issuing a rebuttal to the Prime Minister when the latter said the rally attendees seemed to be crying out "bachao, bachao," rifts are already visible over who the alliance's prime ministerial candidate should be. Rahul is the Congress' obvious nomination, but cries for Mayawati and Mamata to become prime minister are now more distinct than ever.

As such, the Congress seems to be as wary of its role in the mahagathbandhan as regional parties are cautious about signing up under its leadership.

Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 16:55:03 IST