Politics

Can Congress Be the Glue that Binds an Anti-BJP Front? Poll pundits say, from winning Karnataka and a slew of state polls to forging regional alliances, Congress has a complex task at hand

@MasalaBai

IN THE aftermath of the Tripura Assembly polls results, which saw a BJP-led alliance putting an end to 25 years of Communist rule in the state, regional leaders across India have held many meetings to put together a political alliance before the Lok Sabha elections in their effort to prevent the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from coming back to power in 2019.

Political analysts say this is a complicated task but the main Opposition, Congress, could well emerge as the party that will hold an anti-BJP front together if things go according to plan.

Any pre-poll agreement now will have to survive the stress test of post-election arithmetic and returning numbers from a slew of assembly elections in key states in which the Congress is the main opponent of BJP. With 48 lower house seats, Congress is still the party with the highest tally after BJP’s 274, followed by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) at 37 and All India Trinamool Congress’ (AITMC) 34.

INCUMBENT ON CONGRESS TO WIN KARNATAKA

Analysts say the upcoming Karnataka Assembly elections are essential for the subsistence of the Congress, the only pan-India party in a direct contest with the BJP in most states. And if Congress wins Karnataka, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) road back to power won’t be easy, they say.

“The political dynamics will change after the Karnataka elections,” says Sanjay Jha, spokesperson for the Congress party.

Sanjay Jha
Challenge is not just retaining Karnataka, but also winning Rajasthan and other states, says Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha (Photo: Twitter | @JhaSanjay)

“In a majority of states the direct contest is between the BJP and the Congress, and in rare cases, it is a third party like the AAP in Delhi or the Shiv Sena or NCP here (in Maharashtra). Essentially, it still remains BJP vs Congress in virtually 50 percent of the Lok Sabha seats, which are roughly 250 seats,” says Jha.

In the past two years, Congress has been routed from many of its strongholds. Where it once had a government in 11 states in 2014, it is now in power in three states and a union territory.

At a dinner hosted at her house on March 13 for leaders of 20 Opposition parties before a recent All India Congress Committee plenary, Sonia Gandhi met several leaders to explore the possibility of forging a broader unity among secular parties ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress spokesperson said the event was meant to promote “amity and friendship”.

She gave them a sense that Congress is “extremely open to creating a viable platform” where parties that oppose BJP “are able to maintain their regional hold while at the same time focus on the larger national objective in (routing) what is clearly an anti-democratic and communal party,” says Jha.

The issue of political accommodation with regional parties will be extremely critical

– Sanjay Jha, Congress Party Spokesperson

In the south, the Congress is the main Opposition in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Telangana. It is in power in Puducherry and Karnataka – the reason why BJP is focusing on its southern push.

Congress will go head-to-head with BJP in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan in Assembly elections early in 2019. All three states currently have BJP governments.

In the Rajasthan by-elections earlier this year, where one Assembly seat and two Lok Sabha seats were up for contest, Congress had a clean sweep. In the Madhya Pradesh by-polls, it won two Assembly seats in Mungaoli and Kolaras with considerable margins. The by-election victories have come not only as a morale-booster for Congress but as an opportunity for regional leaders to explore the idea of a third front by consolidating the opposition vote share, with or without the Congress.

‘TOO MANY INDIVIDUAL AMBITIONS’

TS Sudhir
Senior journalist TS Sudhir says, If Congress can retain Karnataka, it will find itself the fulcrum of this anti-BJP formation. (Photo courtesy: Twitter | @Iamtssudhir)

If Congress fares well in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, it will gain lost confidence among allies and can better position itself as the fulcrum of a strong opposition to BJP. But regional dynamics are complicated, given individual ambitions of the key players who are likely to jostle to take the prime share of the cake.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrashekhar Rao, the Chief Minister of Telangana, have come together to discuss pre-poll alliances with other interested parties such as Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) recently snapped ties with the NDA over denial of special status to Andhra Pradesh and his visit to Delhi was significantly timed to coincide with Banerjee’s.

“Problem is, for people like Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrashekhar Rao, Congress remains the main rival in many of those states like in Telangana and Andhra. That will create its own set of problems. I don’t see how this can work out because there are too many individual ambitions at play,” says senior journalist TS Sudhir.

If Congress can retain Karnataka, it will find itself the fulcrum of this anti-BJP formation, which the likes of Naidu or KCR will be not be able to ignore. If Karnataka goes with the BJP, then 2019 will be a done deal

– TS Sudhir, Senior Journalist

‘OLD ENEMIES COMING TOGETHER’

Shazia Ilmi
BJP leader Shazia Ilmi says, just the talk of an alliance against BJP is a concession of defeat. (Photo courtesy: bjp.org)

“Old enemies of BJP are scurrying together with the sole purpose of defeating BJP,” says Shazia Ilmi. Ilmi, who crossed over to the saffron party from Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2015, says sustaining such a coalition, apart from approaching the prickly subject of seat-sharing, will be tough.

Her party colleague in Delhi, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, agrees. “There’s no possibility for the Opposition to unite in 2019. There are too many big leaders who will clash on ideology,” Bagga says.

According to Ilmi, the often-thorny regional equations – between AIADMK and the DMK, TMC and the Left parties, Shiv Sena and the NCP – will decide the success of a national alliance.

“What happened to the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar? That’s the biggest example of why a third front will not work,” says Ilmi. An alliance of Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and Congress formed before the Bihar Assembly polls in 2015 fell apart when Nitish Kumar broke off to support the NDA.

“They all have to first bury their hostilities,” Ilmi says.

Just the talk of an alliance against the BJP is a concession of defeat, she adds.

Since coming to office in 2014, the BJP has largely relied on Modi’s larger-than-life image and indefatigable energy to run a well-oiled election machinery as it won a series of state elections. However, the space it gained in electoral politics seems to have taken a hit in the perception war.

Glitches in the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation have taken some sheen away from the government’s efforts on the economic front.

Though BJP and its allies now rule 21 of India’s 29 states, opposition members take hope in the results of the recent by-elections that went decisively against the party.

Regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which is looking to stem a growing BJP thrust in Odisha, is one of the many keenly looking at whether a third front can pull off the numbers.

‘NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION’

BJD lawmaker Baijayant Jay Panda says putting together an alliance will not be as easy as it sounds.

 

“It’s very clear now that BJP has come into what is called pole position, has replaced Congress clearly as the largest party in the country with governments in most number of states,” Panda says. “Now in the Indian context, something like a one-third vote share is enough to secure a victory.”

BJP’s landslide victory in 2014 was based on a 31% vote share as compared to UPA’s 29%.

“But if other parties get together, then simple arithmetic come in the way of a BJP victory. We’ve seen this in Bihar where you had the entire Opposition come together against the BJP and you saw this in Gujarat where almost the entire Opposition had come together with the exception of one or two small parties,” Panda says.

During the by-elections in UP’s Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the SP and BSP joined hands to fight the BJP.

“The vote share added up to 30-40% even though Congress wasn’t a part of the alliance and more or less got wiped out. What it seems to indicate is that in the next elections arithmetic will count if most or all of the opposition come together,” he says.

Can that happen nationally?

“It’s a very big question because of the wide array of parties across so many states to come together,” Panda says.

It will be very hard to put together a comprehensive alliance between two parties or three parties with strong ideological differences and strong personalities

– Baijayant Jay Panda, BJD Lawmaker

But then again, he adds, necessity is the mother of invention and compulsion can make all kinds of strange bedfellows.

‘THIS IS MODI’S FIRST AND LAST TERM AS PM’

Derek O'Brien
TMC leader Derek O’Brien says, there’s no question of aligning with anybody in West Bengal. (Photo courtesy: derek.in)

Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress is certain that Modi will not return.

“The people have made up their mind. They (BJP) made a lot of promises and these promises haven’t been kept,” O’Brien says. The margin of votes in the Alwar and Ajmer by-polls are telling.

“If you study the assembly by-polls, you’ll see how the geopolitics play out. Alwar is a constituency at the border of Rajasthan and Haryana that was won by the BJP by 2.5 lakh in 2014. In 2018 from plus 2.5 lakh, it dropped minus 1.5 lakh,” O’Brien points out.

“In Ajmer, they won the constituency by 1.7 lakhs in 2014. Now they lost it by 90,000 votes, and that’s in central Rajasthan. By-polls in Bengal, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh – put them together and their number is somewhere between 150 and 180,” the TMC leader adds.

“When I was asked this question (whether BJP will come back in 2019) in early March, I said let’s wait for the four by-poll results, now with Gorakhpur and Phulpur (both won by Samajwadi Party), I’m absolutely certain this is Modi’s first and last ever term as PM,” he says.

In Bengal, O’Brien says, there’s no question of aligning with anybody. “There will be formal understanding in some cases and in some there will be no formal understanding. In Bengal it will be Mamata vs the BJP,” he says.

“She has herself said ‘I would like to play the role of a squirrel in the garden’,” O’Brien says. The two-time CM, three-time Union Minister, and an MP for 25 years is set to play “a lead role in 2019”, he says. A big part of that role is managing egos of various allies and functioning as a facilitator.

RAHUL VS MODI

Bagga is of the firm belief that Rahul Gandhi is no match for Modi’s popularity. “Look at any opinion poll, Modi is ahead of Rahul Gandhi,” he says.

“Whatever it takes, BJP needs to be stopped. Congress may or may not be part of that equation,” says Ankit Lal of AAP.

“Despite Rahul Gandhi’s social media push, he has not been much of a game changer. You cannot use the same tools the BJP used to come to power. Modi has many times used below the belt remarks and Congress is doing the same. There is a need for a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance,” adds Ankit.

AAP co-founder Arvind Kejriwal and Banerjee share a close bond and Lal says, if Banerjee takes the lead, it will be “easier for us to talk to them”.

But the consolidation of the numbers will be tricky.

The United Front of 1996, that propelled HD Deve Gowda to prime ministership from the CM post in Karnataka, remains a cautionary tale.

CONGRESS WILL HAVE TO SWALLOW ITS PRIDE

Congress can play a role in putting together this coalition but there are several things to consider. Apart from places where Congress is No 2, in most states, it will be relegated to the third or fourth place in any alliance, Panda says, adding that while that sacrifice may be necessary to put together the coalition, it will do the future chances of the Congress harm.

Patidar agitation leader and vocal critic of Modi, Hardik Patel, is certain that BJP won’t get more than 180 seats this time.

Iss baar 100% nahi hone wala hai,” Patel says. If the BJP does not get the numbers, he predicts Modi will never be able to return as the PM in a coalition. The RSS will field Nitin Gadkari, seen as a more pliant candidate to do the RSS’s bidding, and eventually Ram Vilas Paswan, an ally of the NDA government and leader of the Lok Janashakti Party, will also leave the group, Patel predicts. Paswan in an interview with Reuters has ruled out any such move.

But for Patel, a third front can’t hold a candle, either.

“As soon as the meeting was over, I called Didi (Banerjee) and she said there’s no decision yet. Do the numbers. The Third Front will have to get 300 seats to call majority and form government,” he says, referring to Banerjee’s meeting with KCR.

‘ULTIMATELY DEVELOPMENT WILL MATTER’

Bagga has an anecdote to emphasize the importance of developmental work in winning elections.

“I recently met an Ola driver. He used to drive someone else’s car. He took out a MUDRA loan of Rs 1 lakh and now has his own car, pays off a Rs 10,000 monthly loan, works for 12 hours and leases out his car for another 12, and easily makes Rs 50,000 a month,” Bagga says, referring to the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana, a project launched by the Government in 2015 to help finance small businesses.

At any rate, by-polls are no measure of a party’s position, Bagga says. “People weren’t choosing a leader in the by-polls.”

THE REAL TESTS: KARNATAKA, RAJASTHAN POLLS

“For instance, in a state like Tamil Nadu, where the Congress has not been a force to reckon with for 50 years, even there in every constituency they command a vote share of 3,000 to 5,000 votes. In an Assembly contest those votes could become critical,” says Sudhir.

“At the end of the day we will be very focused on the low-hanging fruit, the direct-to direct contest with BJP in the states we are the two principal parties,” says Jha. If the opposition gets its act together now, Jha says they stand a chance of eating into BJP’s vote share.

“Challenge is not just retaining Karnataka, but also winning Rajasthan and other states away from BJP,” he adds.

(Rituparna Chatterjee is a journalist and former Deputy Editor of HuffPost India.)

–ENDS–

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