Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi will host leaders of 17 Opposition parties at her New Delhi residence on Tuesday, as the Congress moves ahead ambitiously to forge a united alliance to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) might.
Sources close to the Congress confirmed that Tuesday's dinner could signify the coming together of all Opposition parties who would take on the BJP inside and outside Parliament. "It would not only be a dinner, but also showcase the strength of Opposition parties who would like to come together to form a front against the misrule of BJP," a senior leader said.
The Congress leader said a missive was sent to West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chairperson Mamata Banerjee, but she is yet to confirm.
TMC-Congress tie-up for Rajya Sabha polls
Things do look good for an alliance with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), after the party accepted Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi's nomination for Rajya Sabha polls. West Bengal sends five candidates to the Upper House of Parliament, and Banerjee, it was earlier said, had prepared five TMC candidates' names for all seats. However, after Congress requested for a seat, with Sonia herself putting in a request, she accepted Singhvi's nomination.
Banerjee's presence at the meeting will be critical, because the TMC brings with it 34 MPs, one of the biggest constituents of a possible Third Front. The TMC's tally in Lok Sabha is behind only the Congress' 44 MPs and AIADMK's 37 parliamentarians.
However, what this does mean is that the Left parties, formerly an ally of the Congress, are now left in the cold. As reported by Firstpost in an earlier article, the Congress-TMC alliance can contribute up to 35-38 Lok Sabha seats, which gives it more heft as compared to a Congress-Left alliance.
DMK, not AIADMK
The AIADMK is unlikely to align forces with Sonia Gandhi, especially because the Congress is still allies with the DMK. And no amount of common hatred for BJP is enough to bring DMK and AIADMK together.
The DMK has confirmed its presence at Tuesday's meeting, with MK Kanimozhi being deputed to attend the dinner. Interestingly, DMK working president MK Stalin spoke on the phone with Banerjee a couple of days ago and the topic of a joint front to counter the BJP was on the agenda.
However, a report on The Times of India said that Stalin is likely to be preoccupied in Chennai and Kanimozhi will be the party's representative in Delhi.
"Banerjee wanted the DMK to coordinate with other regional parties too. She feels comfortable working with the DMK. Banerjee suggested that all federal parties stay in touch and work cohesively as a bloc," a DMK leader was quoted as saying in the report.
The report suggested further that Sonia's plan to invite Opposition parties may have come about following talks of a Third Front — a non-BJP, non-Congress alliance of parties. The Congress may end up the bigger loser in case a Third Front does materialise, as it's running short of regional allies and numbers to take on the BJP's might.
Who will lead the alliance
And if getting a disparate set of parties — with no common ground linking them other than an opposition to the BJP's brand of politics — wasn't hard enough, it will be harder still to unite them on the issue of who will lead the alliance. The Congress, by virtue of being the oldest and most established party, will want for itself the honour of leading the alliance.
However, this is unlikely to go down well with others, especially parties who have made their fortunes on a staunchly anti-Congress plank. Especially parties like Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress who had broken ties with the UPA publicly in 2012 is unlikely to go back to the fold unless she is offered the chance to lead the alliance.
Or even the AIADMK, the largest non-BJP constituent of the Lok Sabha currently. Although not allied with either the BJP or the Congress, the AIADMK is in a position of such numerical strength that it's likely to demand it's fair share of the spoils.
A period of churn
Sonia Gandhi's efforts to unite parties who might appear not to have much common ground will cap off a period of great churn in Indian politics. Long-time BJP ally, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has pulled out of the government. And though it remains part of the NDA, continued delay in granting 'special status' to Andhra Pradesh may cause it to pull out of the alliance altogether.
A report on India Today said the Congress is eyeing the TDP and has invited its leaders to be part of Tuesday's dinner and also to explore the possibility of being in an anti-BJP alliance with other like-minded parties. "TDP is miffed with the way BJP has treated them. We have extended invitations to them too. It is a step towards strengthening the fight against BJP and anyone who agrees with common minimum agenda of ours is welcome," a senior Congress leader said.
Even in Telangana, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has called for the emergence of a Third Front. On the Telangana Rashtra Samiti's (TRS) 'Foundation Day' on 27 April, Rao is reportedly planning to announce the alliance, and is even planning to bring together other national leaders who are opposed to both Congress and BJP.
The Congress would need the TRS to halt its plans of organising a Third Front, and if possible to align its fortunes with its own plans of forging an anti-BJP alliance.
In Jharkhand, the Congress has already stitched together an alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) last week, with JMM president Hemant Soren agreeing to support Congress' candidate in the Rajya Sabha polls, while the Congress will lend a hand to JMM in the Lok Sabha and Jharkhand Assembly polls, both scheduled for 2019.
Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and most electorally critical state, has already witnessed an unprecedented coming together of bitter rivals Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for by-elections held this week.
SP and BSP, who have traditionally been the two primary parties of Uttar Pradesh politics, were both left annihilated by the BJP juggernaut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and also the 2017 Assembly polls. The BJP won 73 out of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats, while the SP managed five. The BSP failed to even open its account. The one-sided victory was repeated three years later, when the BJP won 312 out of 403 Assembly seats, while the SP and BSP managed 47 and 19 respectively.
It's fairly evident from these numbers that the two parties are facing a battle for their mere survival. The election winning machine that is the BJP has been so powerful in India's largest state that the two have been left with no option but to join hands. While it is only for the two by-elections thus far, success in them could lay down a template for the future. And if the Congress can join them, there could be the possibility of a 'Mahagathbandhan'-like grand alliance in the works.
And it was one such 'Mahagathbandhan' — comprising RJD, JD(U) and the Congress — that dealt the last major defeat to the BJP, when it defeated the saffron party in Bihar in 2015. Can Sonia and Co. conjure up the numbers for another?
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Mar 13, 2018 13:35 PM