Rahul Gandhi's attacks on Modi may grab eyeballs, but without meaningful alliances, Congress' revival is at risk
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Congress under Rahul Gandhi seems torn between its ambition to re-emerge as a national alternative to BJP for its long-term survival and the reality of its reduced national footprint
Congress would need to play the role of a conduit for Opposition unity and anchor the grand alliance to defeat Modi in 2019 polls
Congress president Rahul Gandhi is faltering at the job of stitching alliances with Congress still suffering from the ‘big brother’ attitude
The party seems torn between its ambition to re-emerge as a national alternative to BJP and the reality of its reduced national footprint
It is time the Congress president addresses the critical failures in alliance formation and adopts a more flexible stance
It became evident quite early — even before the drumroll for 2019 Lok Sabha election had begun — that dislodging the BJP would be quite difficult if the Opposition parties don’t strike tactical pre-poll alliances. Accordingly, we saw the movement towards a ‘grand alliance’ or a ‘mahagathbandhan’ where theoretically every seat among the 543 Lok Sabha seats will be a one-on-one contest between the BJP and the Opposition. This was a formula floated by some Opposition leaders such as Mamata Banerjee who made a grand show of Opposition unity in a giant rally in Kolkata last January.
While the theory was sound enough, implementing it on the ground was always going to be a problem. The lack of chemistry quite often runs antithetical to the promise of arithmetic.
The bigger question was about the role of Congress. Regional parties that are quite strong in their respective fiefdoms lack national outreach. Their personal ambitions come in the way of stitching up a mythical ‘non-BJP, non-Congress third front’. It was evident that the Congress would need to play the role of a conduit for Opposition unity and anchor the grand alliance, but its own compulsions are posing problems for itself and queering the pitch for a united Opposition against the BJP.
The Congress, right now, is in a state of suspended animation. It seems torn between the twin impulses of ambition and reality. Its ambition of re-emerging as a national alternative to the BJP is crucial to its long-term existence but in the short term, this ambition is rubbing up against the reality of its reduced national footprint, decrepit party structure in several states and the need to strike smart alliances. The Assembly poll results towards the end of last year have compounded the problem.
While the Congress was grudgingly settling down in its new role of playing second fiddle to allies — for instance, the offer of chief minister’s post to seal the JD(S) deal and keep the BJP away from power in Karnataka — the three wins in Hindi heartland seems to have convinced the party that its revival is on course. This could be a red herring.
Misreading the Assembly polls results could prove costly to the Congress and throw a spanner in its plan of preventing Narendra Modi's return in 2019. For the Congress to act as a conduit for Opposition unity it must show flexibility in working with regional partners and be prepared to make sacrifices to make the alliances work. While this may delay its structural revival, the immediate imperative for the party is to gain a share of power at the Centre. It is an interesting paradox. If the Congress cedes too much space to alliance partners, its revival as a major political force gets delayed. Conversely, if it chooses not to ally with partners and goes alone, it risks getting left out of the power pie which again, may delay its revival.
Mitigating this tension between the need to make space for alliance partners and revive the party’s political relevance is the leadership’s primary task. Going by the trend so far in the campaign season, Rahul Gandhi is faltering in his job.
The Congress president seems unsure about the path to be taken. Let’s take the case of Uttar Pradesh, for example. Having been left out of the SP-BSP alliance, Rahul launched sister Priyanka Gandhi and put her officially in charge of Uttar Pradesh East. Initial media hype and soundbites from Congress’ top leadership created an impression that the party is serious about throwing a challenge to key players in BJP and the SP-BSP alliance. It became quickly clear to Priyanka — tasked with building the party ground up in India’s most crucial state where it is almost non-existent on the ground — that emerging as a serious challenger in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls will be a stretch for Congress. Accordingly, the goalposts were shifted and Congress now talks about strengthening the base first before the next Assembly polls.
As the election dates draw near, the Congress seems unable to stitch alliances and upsetting potential partners. Mayawati has already made it clear that there will be no electoral alliance with the Congress in any state. In reply, the Congress taunted her for not having “even a single seat in the Parliament” and dismissed her.
"How can she decide if the Congress has to come on board or not? We are fighting the election alone and do not want an alliance. We don't need her,” Uttar Pradesh Congress spokesperson Rajiv Bakshi was quoted, as saying.
It possibly did not occur to Congress that keeping the door open for negotiation works better in politics than arrogance. But its woes in Uttar Pradesh are reflective of its woes elsewhere and utter failure so far in striking pre-poll partnerships. What’s worse is that Congress seems to be still suffering from the ‘big brother’ attitude that regional chiefs such as Mayawati find abhorring. Then there’s the question of Rahul’s acceptability. Many regional leaders still prefer dealing with Sonia Gandhi — West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, for instance.
While the BJP is busy settling differences with estranged partners and reaching pre-poll deals, the Congress appears laden-footed and arrogant. In Karnataka, which has so far showcased the worst traits of coalition politics, senior Congress leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah declared on Monday that Congress won’t yield any “sitting MP seats” to partner JD(S).
The BJP, which understands the need for coalition politics in the absence of a ‘wave’ factor, appears generous in offering a seat-sharing deal to partners. BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav announced on Monday that the party has sealed a “grand alliance” in the North East by wooing even estranged partners such as Asom Gana Parishad.
“The BJP, NPP, NDPP, AGP and BPF will fight together in Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh with the mission of defeating Congress party in the hustings…,” Madhav wrote, adding that the party will fight alongside Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), its coalition partner in Tripura and will contest from Sikkim in partnership with the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha.
The Congress is trying to strike a deal with the Left Front while simultaneously battling it in Kerala. In Delhi, the Congress has rejected AAP’s overtures, leaving Arvind Kejriwal to utter that AAP will win without Congres' support.
In Bihar, one of the few places where the Congress is still in with a chance to strike a meaningful alliance, the party has threatened RJD, its key partner, that it will go solo in the state if the seat-sharing formula is not “respectable”.
Even the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra seems to have gotten off to a tumultuous start with NCP veteran Sharad Pawar opting out of the race. In both Maharashtra and Gujarat, Congress has been hit by a volley of defections that some analysts say are BJP’s ploy to demoralise the Congress.
The picture that emerges is that of a party unsure of its core strategy in approaching the elections. Rahul’s aggressive attacks on Modi may grab some eyeballs on prime time television but it’s to be seen whether that alone is enough to stymie BJP’s chances. It is time the Congress president addresses the critical failures in alliance formation and adopts a more flexible stance.
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