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A Party In Need, Indeed

The SP-BSP win in UP bypolls has made the Congress look desperately for allies to take on the BJP in 2019

A Party In Need, Indeed
Step One
Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner for leaders of other Opposition parties
Photograph by PTI
A Party In Need, Indeed

Forging an alliance with other political parties is no easy job for the leadership of any political party. For a party steadily losing ground to its rivals and aware of its hallowed status as a national party being in jeopardy, it can only be tougher. As the newly elected president of the Grand Old Party, which led the country’s independence struggle and ruled independent India for most of the past seven decades, Rahul Gandhi knows how daunting a task lies ahead, given the ground realities.

The Congress, however, is no stranger to coalition-building. Not only was it the first casualty of an alliance that drove a central government out of power, leading to the formation of the Janata Party government in post-Emergency 1977, the Congress has also been a part of quite a few coalition governments since. In all those coalitions, the Congress had been the single largest party, with more parliamentary seats than the sum total of what its alliance partners had. And, barring a few occasions when it supported governments from outside, the prime minister came from the Congress in most of those coalitions. But the scene has changed drastically since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The Congress is still the single largest party outside the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which technically puts it at the head of the parliamentary Opposition, but its numbers have come down to only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even in 1977 and 1989—at the peak of an anti-Congress wave each time—the party had managed to secure 154 and 197 seats, respectively.

With its depleted strength in Parliament and in the states, the Congress no longer has the clout it once had, which forced others to be naturally deferential to its president.

“Being the leader of a national party, forging a coalition with other parties is always a tricky role,” says a Congress insider. “It involves a lot of give and take. The egos and sensitivities of potential allies have to be carefully handled.” For Rahul, this task will be doubly tougher. For one, unlike his mot­her, Sonia Gandhi, he does not have the same rapport with leaders of parties that could join the proposed alliance. And secondly, the Congress’s depleted strength in Parliament and in the states—it’s in power only in three while its main rival, the BJP, is the ruling party in 22—means it no longer has the political clout it once had, which forced others to be naturally deferential to the Congress president. The state government in Delhi, too, is not a Congress one, and Delhi has seven Lok Sabha seats. The eastern and southern swathes of the country, which have still been out of the saffron reach, are mostly ruled by non-Congress parties, barring Karnataka.

Congress leaders, however, argue it is still a common belief that no national-level alliance aiming to derail the BJP’s ­triumphant march can be forged without the Congress, despite the party’s weakened status. “The fundamental challenge to Congress is ideological,” says Congress leader Digvijay Singh. “The party’s core ideology and fundamentals, followed from Mahatma Gandhi’s time to Sonia’s, set our line and direction.” According to him, some key elements like pluralism, secularism and social justice are articles of faith for the Congress—and with greater participation of the youth, those will also be followed in the future.

In recent months, there has been a rethink among the party’s leadership about its future, insiders point out. Initially, it was thought that after passing the baton to Rahul, Sonia would gradually retire from active politics, letting her son settle down in his new role. Since age was on Rahul’s side, as the argument goes, the party had decided that to rebuild itself and regain its relevance to the people of the country, it would go it alone, instead of relying on other parties and alliances. This, the leaders felt, would give the Congress enough time to prepare itself not for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but for the next one in 2024. They expected Rahul to be fully prepared by then for being projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Tall Order

Rahul Gandhi with other Opposition leaders at a public rally last year

Photograph by PTI

However, the decision of erstwhile rivals, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Uttar Pradesh and their success in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections, which established that the BJP is not invincible if only the right combination of parties came together, made Sonia ­rethink the earlier strategy. So the current thinking in the party is that even if the BJP can be limited to 200 seats, its coalition would be constantly vulnerable and the Hindutva agenda can, therefore, no longer be as forcefully implemen­ted as is allegedly being done in the present set-up.

With this in mind, hectic negotiations are on within the ­party to forge a common minimum programme for itself and its potential allies. The party’s dialogues are under way with pol­itical partners—both existing and potential ones—to ­define their position on burning national issues, the key among them being corruption, employment, Centre-state rel­ations, agrarian issues (with a particular focus on minimum support prices) and social-sector welfare schemes. “The Congress badly needs allies at this juncture,” says a pol­itical observer. “And it won’t be in a position to dictate terms. The alliance partners are likely to drive a hard bargain now.”

The Congress is not even in the second or third position in five major states that account for 250 Lok Sabha seats—UP (80 seats), Maharashtra (48), Bihar (40), West Bengal (42) Tamil Nadu plus Pondicherry (40). Even within the Opposition, its position is way below the others in these states. It’s the same situation in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, with 42 Lok Sabha seats in total, and in Orissa and Assam—states where the Congress would find it extremely difficult to re-establish its relevance as a political force unless it aligns with the right partners.

The Congress would have to play ­second fiddle to the dominant ally in many states, but such an alliance would be at the cost of the Grand Old Party’s local leaders and rank-and-file.

For the Grand Old Party, there are two categories of potential allies: parties that are vehemently anti-BJP and unlikely to join an alliance led by the saffron party even if it allows them key cabinet portfolios; and parties that have been part of BJP-led alliances in the past and which, depending on the numbers, could join hands with the BJP again in the coming days. Therefore, the Congress would have to be extremely cautious and judicious before choosing its partners. But Rahul faces two big challenges in doing that. First, he will have to cultivate the trust and confidence of the leaders of the potential alliance partners. This is where, perhaps, he would need Sonia’s help, and this could also be the reason why his mother has decided to postpone her political retirement for some more time. As a first step in this direction, she hosted a dinner recently for a number of potential allies.

Even if an alliance takes shape, there would still be the matter of fixing the seat-sharing equations before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. In the present circumstances, it is clear that the Congress would have to play second fiddle to the dominant party in the states. But this would also mean that in many states where the potential ally is in power, the local unit of the Congress would be adversely affected by the alliance. For example, in a state like West Bengal, if the Congress goes for an alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), it would be at the cost of the Congress’s local leaders and rank-and-file.

“If we enter an alliance with the TMC, most of our cadres would move to the BJP as they would see it as the only party that can effectively resist Mamata’s atrocities on her political opponents,” says West Bengal Congress leader Abdul Mannan. This could also be the case in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Congress would be totally at the mercy of the dominant partner or the ruling party.

Congress leaders believe the party can still call the shots in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which go to polls in the coming months and where it is locked in one-on-one fights with the BJP. An optimistic view within the party is that these states would give it enough seats to be a player in government formation in 2019, thus giving Rahul more time to prepare for a big win the next time.

The Congress had given it all in Gujarat last year and yet lost at the hustings. That does not, however, change the fact that assembly poll results in MP, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand would determine its effective bargaining power during the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. “If elections are held today in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, Congress hi jeetegi—only the Congress will win,” says Rajya Sabha MP Pramod Tiwari of the Congress.

Much of this could be just a way for Congress leaders to convince themselves that they still have a fighting chance against the BJP. Most observers believe, however, that the forthcoming Karnataka assembly polls could well define the future course of the Congress and the nature of its alliance for the 2019 elections. If the Congress manages to retain Karnataka, it would also have a positive effect on Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. If that happens, it would allow others within the Congress to repose faith in Rahul’s leadership, and it would be taken more seriously by potential allies, who may be sceptical now.

By Pranay Sharma & Pragya Singh in New Delhi

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