The reluctance of the Congress to spell out its terms of engagement with political parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies seems to be coming in the way of forging an alliance to pose a challenge to the ruling dispensation in the 2019 parliamentary polls. On Friday, while giving out a call to Opposition parties to unite, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee categorically stated that by virtue of leading the largest party, Sonia Gandhi could be acceptable as the chairperson of the proposed Gathbandhan, so as to facilitate meetings and programmes to be carried out in various cities to expose the NDA government.
The clear signal she sent was that the Congress could at best help in coordinating the meetings and programmes of the alliance, thereby leaving the question of leadership wide open. It is obvious that Mamata, who is both an astute and perceptive politician, has laid out her blueprint and declared that in order to take on Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Central level, she was even prepared to work hand-in-hand with the Congress and the Left parties, who continue to oppose her government in West Bengal. Wherever the regional parties were strong, they should be helped, and wherever the Congress had a stronger presence, it should be facilitated by others, the Trinamool Congress supremo stated, thereby driving home the point that there would be no big brother in the proposed alliance. Everyone would be expected to contribute according to their potential and thus, as a consequence, no single party could set the agenda for the Opposition, which would have to be done collectively.
On a day when Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) boss, Sharad Pawar kept away from the meeting of the Opposition parties, Mamata appeared to have struck a conciliatory note, where she did not criticise Nitish Kumar for joining hands with the BJP, but underlined the need to include the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in any formation, which decides to take on the NDA in the next Parliamentary polls.
It was evident that Mamata wanted the Congress in its weakened state to know that it could not dictate its wishes for others to follow and any decision had to be collective, and not unilateral. The West Bengal Chief Minister’s candid observations are being interpreted in political circles as her message to the Congress to come out with its own plan for the possible alliance. Like Mamata, Pawar wants to ascertain what the grand old party has in its mind before committing himself fully to any kind of association of Opposition parties. His absence on Friday from the meeting was to communicate to the Congress that if it wants him to be on board, it should be frank with its overall view on how the Opposition could come together.
Both Mamata and Pawar want Sonia Gandhi to provide the assurance that the Congress would not insist on giving the leadership role of the alliance to Rahul Gandhi, who is still struggling to be accepted as a leader in his own party. Once the issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all, the dialogue on the alliance can be carried forward towards its logical conclusion. The regional parties wishing to associate themselves with the Congress would only do so if no attempt was made to foist any leader on them.
They would be far more comfortable with the idea of the Congress playing the role of a facilitator to the Opposition unity, instead of acquiring the leadership mantle. In that context, someone like Mamata Banerjee, who also has the Congress DNA, would be far more acceptable than any other leader.
Therefore, the forward movement would solely depend on how the Congress reacts to the situation where its chances of returning to power at the Centre were diminishing by the day, and its primacy has already been finished by a resurgent BJP under the overall leadership of Narendra Modi.