To Unseat Modi in 2019, Congress Must Work Around Priorities of Regional Parties

Despite the CWC projecting Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 general elections, leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Naveen Patnaik and Mayawati might have to be accommodated to defeat the NDA.

New Delhi: Although the recently-constituted Congress Working Committee (CWC) anointed Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate in its very first meeting, senior party leaders, including Gandhi himself, have subsequently indicated that forging alliances with like-minded parties to stop the Bharatiya Janata Party from coming back to power would be the Congress’s top priority. In case of a hung Lok Sabha in 2019, the Congress has said that it is open to supporting any non-BJP/RSS backed leader for the top position.

2019’s general elections are still a few months away. More immediately knocking on the Congress party’s doors are the crucial assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, scheduled later this year. Only when it is able to wrest at least two of these states from the BJP, can it think of emerging as the pivot around a larger coalition to take on the formidable Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Despite giving consistent signals that the party may be on an upward swing, it cannot be debated that the grand old party is currently facing one of its worst crises and is short of both funds and a determined workforce. Naturally, the Congress is hedging bets on its performance in the upcoming assembly elections to pull its weight as a national party with other anti-BJP political players. At the same time, it will have to work around the priorities of regional parties, which may be unwilling to let the Congress play big brother, irrespective of its showing in the assembly elections.

Given the current political landscape, the Congress is deeply aware of its strengths and limitations. In any scenario, forging alliances with non-BJP parties will be crucial for the depleted Congress to make a mark in the general elections.

That is why the ‘P. Chidambaram formula’, or what the former Union finance minister proposed in the CWC meeting, is being discussed in political circles. In his presentation at the CWC meeting, Chidambaram proposed that the Congress should work to secure anywhere between 140 and 150 seats in the 12 states where it is directly up against the BJP. In the remaining states, it should form pre- or post-poll alliances with regional parties to garner another 150 seats, which should be enough to form the government in 2019.

However, the problem with such a formula is that it is easier said than done. The former minister’s calculations can be contrasted with the fact that the Congress’s average seat tally was only a little more than 130 from 1996 to 2004, when the party was in a much better shape. While in 2009 it increased its tally largely due to its improved performance in Andhra Pradesh, it has since then been reduced to only 48 in the Lok Sabha.

Meanwhile, the BJP is enjoying a great run in elections: it is in power in 21 of 29 states, flush with funds and has also earned the distinction of becoming the largest political party on the globe.

As far as alliances are concerned, Congress, on its part, has indicated that it is ready to cede space to regional parties in states where it is a third or a distant player. But its strategy is still unclear in states like Telangana or Odisha, where it plays the principal opposition to a regional player not yet a part of the NDA.

Again, the opposition unity that the Congress has been advocating gets complicated in states like West Bengal and Kerala. In West Bengal, it will have to rethink its alliance with the Left Front, given that Trinamool Congress supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee has been showing great interest in building up a larger anti-BJP coalition. Interestingly, the BJP has emerged as a strong force in the state over the last few years. Similarly, in Kerala, Congress leads the opposition to the Left Front, but will have to distinguish between its state-level and national strategies.

Let us see where the grand old party stands as of now.

Rahul Gandhi is open to an alliance to defeat the BJP. Credit: PTI

States where it can call the shots

The party’s primary focus will be 13 crucial states – Himachal Pradesh (four Lok Sabha seats), Punjab (13), Haryana (10), Rajasthan (25), Madhya Pradesh (29), Chhattisgarh (11), Gujarat (26), Assam (14), Telangana (17), Mizoram (1), Goa (2), Manipur (2) and Delhi (7) (not a full-fledged state) – where it will look to consolidate its organisational strength and win on its own. In most of these states, the Congress has a formidable organisation and is not directly pitched against a possible ally. Thus, it will be held responsible for both its strengths and failures in these territories.

According to a senior leader, the party is looking to build a political narrative that will not just suit its interests but also reduce the significance of smaller players. “A bipolar contest in these states will be advantageous for us,” said the leader.

Together, these states have 161 seats in the Lok Sabha. A strong performance here will hand the Congress a bargaining chip in the larger coalition. In Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Assam, the Congress can build an anti-incumbency narrative against the ruling parties, but in many of these states, the party’s prospects have frequently been offset by open factional fights.

In states like Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa, where it has been handed a defeat by the BJP only recently in assembly elections, it will be a tough task for the Congress to improve its tally.

Similarly, although the Congress is the primary opposition to the BJP in Assam and Chhattisgarh, it faces a daunting challenge from smaller players like the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Ajit Jogi-led Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (CJC) that have their unique strengths and have been leading aggressive campaigns on state issues. The Congress state units of Assam and Chhattisgarh are against alliances with these parties. And in a scenario where the Congress fails to bring them on board as a coalition partner, a triangular fight will clearly hand the BJP the advantage. In Haryana too, former chief minister and Indian National Lok Dal head Om Prakash Chautala has already signalled at an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, thereby creating a third front, rattling both the BJP and Congress. Since Chautala’s party and the Congress have been traditional rivals in the state before the BJP’s emergence, it remains to be seen whether the two parties can bury their differences and fight the BJP together.

In Punjab, Congress will be facing some anti-incumbency. With this in mind, chief minister Amarinder Singh has been giving mixed signals about allying with the Aam Aadmi Party, but nothing is concrete at present. In Delhi too, where Congress hopes to gain in the parliamentary polls and has been taking strong oppositional stances against the AAP government, it lacks credible leadership and organisation.

The Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place, as nurturing an alliance with smaller parties against the wishes of its workers can prove to be detrimental for its electoral prospects.

States where allies will play a crucial role

In states where the Congress has a good organisational presence but is heavily dependent on regional allies to further consolidate its strength, much will come down to seat sharing to keep the ranks intact. Five such states are significant in this context – Maharashtra (48), Kerala (20), Karnataka (28), Jammu and Kashmir (6), Tamil Nadu (39), Bihar (40) and Jharkhand (14). Together, these states account for 195 seats in the Lok Sabha. It is crucial for the Congress and its allies to perform well to close in on the halfway mark (273) in the Lower House.

The Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, the most significant Congress ally, will likely pull its weight in the coalition because of its Maratha base. The Marathas have been dissenting against the BJP government for the last two years. Both the Shiv Sena and NCP have been trying to consolidate the politically-influential community into their folds. The Congress-NCP hopes to gain because of a divided NDA, as Shiv Sena has declared that it will contest the 2019 elections on its own.

NCP Leader Sharad Pawar’s prime ministerial ambitions are no secret. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh/Files

However, the prime ministerial ambitions of Pawar have never been a secret and he will likely play the reticent partner as the elections come closer. This may force the Congress to accommodate NCP’s demands ahead of the elections. If the results of by-polls are anything to go by, the Congress-NCP alliance may gain, but much will depend on how soon the two parties join hands on electoral equations and fight against the BJP.

In Kerala, the Congress has been dealing with internal disputes, largely because of two factions, one led by Oommen Chandy and the other by Ramesh Chennithala. However, the United Democratic Front (UDF) that it leads appears to be intact. With the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in power and no anti-incumbency against it, UDF will be up for a massive challenge. In any case, both the UDF and LDF will remain opposed to the NDA at the Centre.

Bihar is one of those states where the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is firmly behind the Congress and has repeatedly projected Rahul Gandhi as a national leader. Despite the fact that many regional parties have been wary of accepting the Congress leadership, RJD has made no bones about it. After the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) suddenly turned hostile and joined the NDA, Yadav, along with the Congress, has persistently been building a front to counter the BJP-JD(U) combine in Bihar. He has roped in Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was formerly with the NDA. The Left front has also been showing its support to RJD-Congress alliance.

In Jharkhand, the Congress now has a formidable ally in the Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha government. Soren has shown that he can lead from the front and has been able to cash in on the brooding Adivasi resentment against the BJP. In most by-polls, the JMM has shown signs of a resurgence. According to a Jharkhand-based Congress leader, the Congress will most likely contest the elections under Soren’s leadership. “The BJP is in a poor shape because of a series of anti-people policies. Many of its own leaders like Arjun Munda and Karia Munda have been openly critical of the Raghubar Das government. In contrast, we have been performing very well and our workers seem to be well-energised before the big fight,” the leader told The Wire.

Jammu and Kashmir, too, is on the priority list of Congress and its ally, the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference. The People’s Democratic Party, according to many credible reports, is facing a backlash after the BJP decided to unceremoniously pull out of the Mehbooba Mufti-led government. In this context, the Congress-NC alliance is looking to consolidate their ground. Gandhi recently included former PDP MP from Srinagar Tariq Hameed Karra, who has massive ground-level support in the Kashmir Valley, into the CWC as a permanent invitee.

In Tamil Nadu, although the Congress is strong in pockets, both the national parties have virtually no significance in the larger contest between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The Congress is relying on a good performance by the DMK, a UPA partner, in the parliamentary polls as the AIADMK is facing a leadership crisis after the death of J. Jayalalithaa. Since her death, factional fights within the party and defections have plagued governance and the DMK hopes to tap into the disillusionment against the E. Palanisamy government.

As far as Karnataka is concerned, despite a strained alliance, both the Congress and H.D. Kumaraswamy-led Janata Dal (Secular) seem to have understood its significance ahead of the 2019 polls. The recent assembly elections have proven that only BJP will benefit from a triangular fight. To keep the alliance intact, the Congress president has given former chief minister Siddaramaiah a national role by including him in the CWC. If despite all roadblocks, the alliance remains intact, Karnataka may prove to be one of the most significant states for the Congress-led UPA.

Mayawati with Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Tejashwi Yada, Rahul Gandhi and others at H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing in ceremony. Credit: PTI

Gandhi has been asserting the need for an ideological fight against the BJP. Much of this message is not only directed towards the public, but also towards possible allies. “Rahul Gandhi hopes all the parties will be able to bury their differences, lay aside their state-level ambitions and unite on a common ideological platform. If that understanding between our allies and us is clear, all other electoral equations can be worked out mutually,” a Congress leader seen as close to the party president told The Wire.

States where it will stick to the galleries

The same leader added, “The regional parties have felt the pinch the most under Modi’s regime. The BJP has been looking to expand across all states of India. Until now, these parties have successfully articulated the concerns of their respective states at the Centre. But with Modi at the Centre, their voices remained unheard. We must thank the BJP as it has created a situation where all regional parties that have strategically remained outside both the UPA and NDA are speaking with each other and exploring the possibility of a larger alliance.” Congress is still exploring how to bring such parties under the umbrella of one alliance, the leader said.

He conceded that forging pre-poll alliances with some of these parties – which see the Congress as an opposition in their states – is difficult. A post-poll alliance to keep the BJP away cannot be ruled out, however.

A large part of Congress’s future depends on how these neutral parties perform. As a result, Congress appears to have shunned its big brother attitude and let these regional parties decide the political course in their respective states.

Parties like Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and YSR Congress of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) of Telangana, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha, Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal, DMK and AIADMK of Tamil Nadu have pitted regional political narratives to counter the nationalist narrative of the BJP. This has helped them retain an unique character and stem the BJP tide in their states. For them, it is important to be seen as state-centric before being perceived as a national player.

Some of these parties like the TDP, TRS and TMC have already declared they want to play a national role. While the TDP is not averse to working with the Congress, TRS chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao has been pitching for a non-BJP, non-Congress front at the Centre. While their national ambitions have surfaced because of their resentment against the Modi government, Rao is constrained by the fact that Congress is its principal opposition in the state. To maintain an arm’s length with the Congress, the party MPs walked out of the recent no-confidence motion. On the other hand, TMC leaders – including Mamata Banerjee – have been liasoning with Congress leaders multiple times in the recent past. Banerjee has also tried to become the bridge between Congress and the TRS by supporting Rao’s call to build a third front.

The BJD and YSR Congress have also strategically maintained an equidistant position. BJD is aware that the BJP has emerged as its primary opposition in Odisha and Congress has been pushed to the third place. “The media is projecting the upcoming assembly elections in Odisha as a bipolar contest between the BJD and BJP. This is not true as the Congress still has a heftier organisation than the BJP in Odisha,” a party MP had told The Wire a month ago, indicating that his party was wary of such a contest and would rather have a triangular fight in the state. In this context, the BJD would not mind the Congress improving its vote share in the upcoming elections.

It may be recalled that even while the whole of north India was swept by the ‘Modi wave’ in 2014, BJD held its ground in Odisha. Party leaders believe that the party’s Odisha-centric campaign helped defeat the national parties. In all likelihood, BJD would stay away from national dynamics and concentrate on the state. Irrespective of the overall result of the parliamentary polls, it would like to emerge as a party with a solid bargaining stick.

Naveen Patnaik. Credit: PTI

Naveen Patnaik was successful in defending his government against the ‘Modi wave’ in 2014. Credit: PTI

Similar is the case with YSR Congress, which has been putting up strong opposition against the TDP, but stays away from commenting on national politics except on those issues concerning Andhra Pradesh. A case in point would be its aggressive campaign for special category status being granted to the state.

Then comes West Bengal. Although the BJP seems to be surging here, the TMC and the Left Front occupy most political space in the state. While the depleted Left Front is unlikely to gain much, the TMC will look to win as many seats as possible. TMC currently holds 34 of the 42 seats in the state. It has in the last few years drummed up Bengali sub-nationalist identity to counter BJP’s Hindutva campaign. If it manages to retain its seats, it will still be the strongest player in the post-poll talks. For this reason, Mamata Banerjee is frequently asked whether she harbours prime ministerial ambitions, given her efforts to sew up an anti-BJP coalition began much earlier.

Giving her tight competition would be Mayawati, whose aspiration for the top post is not hidden. And this brings us to electorally the most crucial state of India – Uttar Pradesh with 80 seats in the Lok Sabha.

It is almost certain that the two arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party will come together to take on the BJP, which posted its two biggest victories in the state, first in 2014 parliamentary polls and then in the assembly elections last year. The Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress should play an assisting role, making the pre-poll alliance possibly the biggest for any parliamentary polls. All the parties in the front are on common ground when it comes to having an ideological understanding.

However, seat sharing among parties who have been traditional rivals will not be easy. Mayawati, BSP’s supremo, is said to have demanded 50 seats. The Samajwadi Party is unlikely to take this lying down, as its vote share is still the highest among these parties. But Akhilesh Yadav, the SP president, has shown keenness in the alliance and has indicated that both the parties will work out an arrangement ahead of the polls.

What may work for the alliance is the realisation that both parties have only a negligible chance to defeat the BJP if they contest separately. BSP has no representation in the parliament currently. SP was reduced to only five seats in 2014. It added two to its tally because of the alliance in the bypolls. The only MP that RLD has in the Lok Sabha is Tabassum Hassan, a lifetime SP member who was made to contest on a RLD ticket in the Kairana bypolls held earlier this year as part of the alliance’s political tactic. Barring Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, no other Congress candidate could win in the last general election. The alliance, therefore, is necessary for all the constituents than a convenient proposition.

Congress has indicated that in states where it is not among the largest two parties, it will be content with playing the second fiddle and support a larger alliance between regional parties. At a recent press conference, Randeep Surjewala, the chief spokesperson of the Congress, made this strategy clear. He said forging alliances without compromising the ideology and interest of the party will be top priority. He added that Congress will tread a line that will be in the nation’s interest and will also benefit the party.

Whether it succeeds or not, the developments in the last two years show that non-NDA parties have never come this close to each other. The extraordinary way BJP has expanded in the last four years under the leadership of Modi and party president Amit Shah served as an alarm for most parties to take immediate stock of the situation. Even the NDA allies like Shiv Sena, Asom Gana Parishad and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) that held their own stature previously, have been struggling to find space in the BJP-led alliance. As a result, these parties, in both on and off-the record conversations, have been speaking up against the Modi government’s alleged authoritarian practices and Shah’s highhandedness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah at the concluding session of the National Executive Committee meeting of the party's all wings (morchas)' at Civic Centre in New Delhi, on Thursday. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh

Regional parties are reportedly upset with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh/Files

In such a scenario, the opposition has realised that only an undivided state-level opposition can stop the BJP’s surge. The saffron party, in turn, hopes to gain in the eastern states and those in the north-east to neutralise possible losses in north India. But in a scenario where the opposition unites in different states, the BJP will have to brave a Herculean battle to replicate its 2014’s victory.