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Politics

For INDIA to Work, the Congress Must Take a Step Back

As the Congress got busy with the assembly elections, the idea of INDIA took a backseat. The resentment among INDIA leaders signals that it will take another mammoth round of political callisthenics to bring back to centrestage the idea of a united front.

The Congress’s sole focus on the assembly elections in five states has visibly caused a stir among the constituents of the recently-formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, comprising 28 Opposition parties.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who is seen as the sheet anchor of the alliance, expressed his anguish over the Congress’s negligence towards the INDIA bloc. At a rally organised by the Communist Party of India in Patna, Kumar said that though the coalition agreed “to be led by the Congress”, its commitment to the assembly elections has eclipsed the priorities of the INDIA bloc. It seems that the Congress will “respond and call the next INDIA meeting only after the assembly elections are over.”

Yet, both Nitish Kumar and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav have kept the political pot boiling against the BJP by releasing the Bihar government’s detailed caste and socio-economic survey, and then demanding that the Union government must incorporate 65% quota for OBCs, SCs and STs in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, on the lines of Tamil Nadu, and grant Special Category Status to Bihar to meet the challenges that the caste survey has scientifically shown.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav assumed a more aggressive position against the Congress. Soon after the SP and the Congress failed to reach a seat-sharing arrangement in Madhya Pradesh, Akhilesh declared that he would have to rethink his role in the INDIA alliance. The Congress maintained that the INDIA bloc has an understanding only for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, but that didn’t prevent Akhilesh from endlessly attacking the Congress in his election speeches in Madhya Pradesh. He said that the SP’s political strategy of uniting picchde, Dalits, and Adivasis (PDA, comprising OBCs, SCs, and STs) would defeat both the BJP and the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Some reports indicate that Akhilesh has made some sort of truce with the Congress after polling in Madhya Pradesh ended, but his posturing over the last month is a good sign of what may strike the grand alliance in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

When INDIA was born, it was clear that the parties coming together would have to bury, or at least keep aside, their historical differences. The first three meetings of the alliance ― in Patna, Bengaluru and Mumbai ― also indicated that the parties were more than willing to find common ground and weave a political narrative around issues like unemployment, inflation, communal harmony and democratic backsliding during the BJP rule.

The demand for a nationwide caste census gave the coalition its ideological glue, once the usually reticent Congress also joined the bandwagon of social justice politics. BJP’s visible discomfort further boosted INDIA’s political narrative, as a caste census was perceived as a strong contender against the saffron party’s Hindu nationalism. INDIA was seen not merely as a pre-poll coalition for the 2024 elections but also as an ideological platform against the BJP.

Leaders of parties in the INDIA alliance in Mumbai on September 1.

As the Congress got busy with the assembly elections, the idea of INDIA took a backseat. The resentment among INDIA leaders signals that it will take another mammoth round of political callisthenics to bring back to centrestage the idea of a united front. None can deny, however, that the Congress’s possible victories in the assembly results will be a shot in the arm for the alliance, and can assuage the discontent of INDIA leaders. Similarly, a below par result for the Congress can further rile the allies.

A great number of parties in INDIA, like the SP, RJD or even the Shiv Sena, emerged as political forces by opposing the Congress. The rank and file of these parties are inimical to the idea of working with the Congress on the ground. But BJP’s all-round dominance over the last decade has brought them closer than ever before. All that the party workers need now is a clear message from their leaders to fight together.

There are other issues, too. For instance, Akhilesh Yadav fears that the Congress may end up pitting itself against the Samajwadi Party if it attempts to build its organisational muscle in UP by demanding a caste census. Thus, he believes that for the INDIA bloc to come together in a state like UP, the two parties may have to take up different issues to entice voters from across caste and class groups. While the Congress is better placed to advance a development narrative that appeals to the middle classes, the SP can be more effective in peddling the idea of a caste census.

However, the Congress appears to be rightly concerned about its appeal among OBCs and Dalits in states like MP, Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh, where it will face a straight contest against the BJP, and has taken up the demand for a nationwide caste census as one of its primary campaign issues.

These differences between regional aspirations and national ambitions were bound to emerge in the INDIA bloc, sooner or later. The Congress is hoping that a positive outcome in the assembly elections will give it a much-needed leg up, and an opportunity for all INDIA parties to chart out a state-wise electoral and political formula that will not limit each other’s standing. Given that the INDIA parties came together around common concerns, they are more likely to resolve differences than to escalate them.

All INDIA parties will look to iron out these issues and accommodate each other’s concerns in the next few meetings. The Congress, as the leader of the alliance, will have to tactically withdraw to extend support to some regional players on their turf, while getting all the support from them in states where it faces a direct contest with the BJP. Only then would the idea of INDIA stand a chance of being seen as a credible alternative.