#PollVault: Alliance Consolidation, Pot Shots and Politicised Tributes

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New Delhi: For both the BJP and Congress, it was a day to share the spotlight with their allies.

At a press conference on Saturday in Mumbai, Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar together announced a new grand alliance to contest the 48 seats for the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra against the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition.

The newly-launched Samyukta Purogami Mahaaghadi (United Progressive Grand Alliance), officially consists of 56 organisations. However, as The Indian Express noted, most of them are community groups, associations and labour unions – and only five political parties will take part in the polls.

As per the seat-sharing pact, the Congress will nominate candidates from 24 seats, while Sharad Pawar’s NCP will contest 20 seats. Former NDA ally Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana will fight from two seats, while the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi and Yuva Swabhimani Paksha have been allotted one seat each.

It has not been an easy road for the Congress-NCP alliance, plagued by defections and infighting.

Taking a dig at Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), Chavan said that those outside the new alliance were the “B-team” of BJP.

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The Congress had been in talks with Ambedkar, but in vain. Ambedkar, along with All India Ittehadul Majlis-e-Muslimeen (AIIMM), has announced that their coalition will contest all 48 seats in the state. This has been a concern for the opposition alliance as Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi could theoretically lure away some Dalit and Muslim votes.

The Congress also had another looming headache as leader of opposition in the Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil did not attend the press conference.

There had already been speculation that Patil was campaigning for his son, who is now the BJP’s candidate from Ahmednagar. Vikhe Patil had wanted the alliance to field Sujay Patil from his home turf, but the NCP didn’t agree to give up Ahmednagar from its quota.

Also read: Why Prakash Ambedkar Must Ally With Congress and NCP

Even as the Congress was fire-fighting the discontent over its nomination of a Sanatan Sanstha ‘supporter’, the leak of an alleged recorded phone conversation has added to the state unit’s array of troubles. In the audio clip, Chavan is reportedly heard stating that he would like to resign as his concerns over the candidature of Vinayak Bangade from Chandrapur were going unheard.

Speaking to reporters, Chavan did not deny that it was his voice, but asserted that a private conversation should not be made public. In a late night announcement in Delhi, Congress stated that Chavan will be their candidate from Nanded.

Meanwhile, the BJP replaced sitting MPs in four seats mentioned in its second list of 36 Lok Sabha candidates on Saturday.

The BJP was also keeping a date with its allies in the opposite part of the country. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) announced candidates for 39 out of 40 seats in Bihar.

As speculated, BJP’s national spokesperson Shahnawaz Khan could not get a ticket from Begusarai, with minister Giriraj Singh stepping in as his seat, Nawada, has gone to the Lokshakti Jan Party.

Similarly, the outspoken Shatrughan Sinha, who has been critical of Narendra Modi, has not been re-nominated from Patna Sahib constituency. He has been replaced by Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. There have been media reports that Sinha could join Congress and contest again from the same seat.

While his son Chirag Paswan and two brothers will stand in the elections, LJP chief and minister Ram Vilas Paswan does not figure in the NDA list and could be nominated to the Rajya Sabha. The LJP has yet to announce its candidate for one seat in its kitty, Khagaria.

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A day earlier, the Congress and Rashtriya Janta Dal announced that the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ had sealed a seat-sharing pact in Bihar. However, the RJD-led alliance has kept out the Communist Party of India. The RJD will leave one seat out of its 20 seat quota for CPI(ML), with a reciprocal ‘gesture’ made by the left party. Meanwhile, CPI has finalised former JNU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s candidature from Begusarai.

With multiple lists released on Saturday, the Congress has announced candidates for 218 seats. While the BJP may have started late, it has steamed ahead to release a total of 256 names.

Madhya Pradesh BJP leader and former minister Uma Bharati was appointed as party vice-president, which effectively meant that she won’t fighting in the parliamentary elections.

Politicised tributes

Meanwhile as both Congress and BJP consolidated their alliances, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the occasion of the 109th birth anniversary of socialist leader Ram Manmohan Lohia to write a blog post and lash out at the opposition’s “opportunistic alliances”.

March 23 was not only the birth anniversary of Lohia, but also marked 88 years since Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged at Lahore jail.

Both the anniversaries provided enough opportunities for leaders to indulge in political shadow-boxing.

Asserting that “Anti-Congressism” was Lohia’s “heart and soul”, Modi wrote, “Today those parties that falsely claim to be Dr Lohia’s followers are desperate to form an opportunistic ‘maha-milawat’ or alliance of adulteration with the same Congress. It is both ironical and reprehensible”.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav retorted that the BJP has been trying to co-opt leaders like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar and Lohia, but “on the other hand they follow people who these leaders opposed and disagreed with”.

He also posted the opening paragraph of Lohia’s book, “Hindu banam Hindu”. Lohia wrote that “biggest battle in Indian history had been the fight between liberalism and extremism in Hinduism”, which has been going on for over 5000 years and “its end is still not visible”.

Yadav also endorsed his alliance partner Mayawati’s criticism of PM Modi’s letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to convey best wishes on his national day.

India announced on Friday that no government representatives would attend the national day reception of the Pakistan high commission. At the gates of the high commission, Indian guests were asked for their identification details and were advised not to attend the event.

Late Friday night, Khan tweeted thanks to Prime Minister Modi for his letter. There was no official response from the Indian side, but Indian sources insisted that it was just a customary, “unsigned” letter and Modi did talk of a “terror-free south Asia”.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala also jumped into the fray and called on the prime minister to not send more “love letters” to Pakistan.

On Friday, Deccan Herald had reported that there was a possibility that Modi may contest from Bengaluru South constituency.

Rahul attacked but firmly in campaign mode

BJP president Amit Shah, meanwhile, demanded that Congress president Rahul Gandhi should “apologise” for Sam Pitroda’s remarks questioning that casualty figures mentioned by leaders of ruling party.

His party spokesperson targeted Gandhi over his increase in financial assets as an MP in 10 years. Prasad questioned the source of Gandhi’s rise in assets from Rs 55 lakh in 2004 to Rs 9 crore in 2014.

On Saturday, Gandhi was campaigning in eastern India and addressed two big rallies in West Bengal and Bihar.

In West Bengal, Gandhi spoke at Malda North, the stronghold of Ghani Khan Chaudhury family, whose member, Isha Khan Chaudhary is the Congress candidate for Lok Sabha.

He criticised both Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for not listening to the people. “In Bengal, one person runs everything. She never discusses or consults with anyone. One only hears speeches throughout the day,” said Gandhi at the well-attended rally.

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In an interview to Telegraph newspaper, Gandhi said that he had “good relations” with Mamta Banerjee and with most opposition leaders. He added that the failure to reach an understanding with CPM in West Bengal was due to the opposition from the state unit.

The BJP had been expected to increase its vote share in West Bengal, but distribution of seats to a large number of recent defectors from Trinamool Congress has led to resentment from grassroots party workers.

Congress supporters gather to attend a public rally by Rahul Gandhi in Chanchal in Malda on March 23, 2019. Credit: PTI

Before the Malda rally, the Congress president was earlier in Purnea in Bihar, where he targeted Modi for “spreading hatred as the youth were unemployed”. However, unlike in West Bengal, Gandhi did not directly attack NDA ally and chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Gandhi has already been confirmed to stand for re-election his home turf of Amethi. But, several media reports are stating that he could also stand from Wayanad in Kerala. According to these reports, Congress leaders believe that Gandhi fighting from a seat in Kerala could boost their chances in South India.

Amidst rising speculation, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that if Gandhi contested a seat in Kerala, it would mean that he was fighting the Left and not BJP.

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“Congress is facing BJP on a national level and they are facing CPM in Kerala. Therefore, Congress aims to defeat the CPM even if they lose to BJP. What message is being conveyed by this?” asked Vijayan.

BJP’s Amethi candidate and former minister Smriti Irani also mocked Gandhi for “running away” to Wayanad. She claimed that the people of Amethi had driven him out.

A day after cricketer Gautam Gambhir joined BJP, the Congress got a chance to showcase some star power, when singer and dancer from Haryana, Sapna Chaudhary joined the party on Saturday. Chaudhary has a massive following in the Hindi belt, with her joining the party trending on Twitter. Most of her videos on YouTube have over 25 million views each.

It had been expected that she would contest from Mathura against BJP’s sitting MP Hema Malini. But, the late night seventh list from Congress nominated industrialist Mahesh Pathak from the seat.

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