Reluctance on the part of front ranking Opposition leaders to accept Rahul Gandhi as the spearhead of a possible alliance against the Narendra Modi led government in the next Parliamentary polls has come as a rude shock for the Congress. The Opposition stalwarts have made it abundantly clear to UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi that the leadership question of the alliance should be left open, and to begin with, the collective endeavour should be to ensure that Modi does not return as the Prime Minister after the 2019 elections. However, Sonia and her coterie, who are seen to be responsible for the party’s debacle in 2014, are hopeful that once the Congress is able to wrest back power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and retain its hold in Karnataka, the equations within the Opposition may change.

Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee’s supporters view her as the most formidable challenger to Modi, given her connect to the grassroots and her wide acceptability amongst Congress workers, past and present. Her strong point lies in the fact that she did her political apprenticeship in the grand old party and is perceived to be a combative leader with a successful track record.

Banerjee is understood to have directly conveyed to Sonia Gandhi that her party was unwilling to accept Rahul as the overall leader of the possible alliance. Her clarity on the subject is shared by several other top leaders from the Opposition ranks who are of the opinion that Rahul at best could be the facilitator. In their estimation, he has shown significant signs of political maturity, yet, till he delivers in some states so as to enable his party to stand on the victory pedestal, his prowess as a politician who can rake in substantial votes, shall remain suspect.

Bahujan Samaj Party Chief Mayawati is also not enthused at the prospect of facing an electoral battle with the BJP headed by Modi under Rahul’s stewardship. To demonstrate her disinclination to be a part of a Congress led alliance, Mayawati stayed away from a meeting of Opposition leaders recently convened by Sonia Gandhi. As a matter of fact that she has expressed her willingness to join hands with former Prime Minister, H.D. Deva Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) for the Karnataka Assembly polls within the next three months. Mayawati earlier was annoyed with the Congress for forging an alliance with her arch rival, the Samajwadi Party during the Uttar Pradesh polls last year.

Interestingly, the alliance which proved to be a major disaster left the Congress absolutely decimated in most parts of the state which was once its bastion. The Samajwadi Party has since then declared that it would contest the Parliamentary polls in Uttar Pradesh on its own steam, and its association with the Congress was virtually over. The thinking within the SP is that the Congress would be a liability in the state and for the first time it would be an uphill task for the Congress to even retain its safest seats of Raebareli and Amethi, represented in the Lok Sabha by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi respectively.

The Left parties have also displayed their aversion for doing any business with the Congress. At the recent meeting of the CPM, the only political outfit other than the Congress and the BJP to enjoy the national status, the decision was to face its adversaries solo. The CPM has also decided not to have an alliance with the Congress, though its general secretary Sitaram Yechury pleaded relentlessly to convince his adamant party colleagues. Significantly, the Left parties have been pivotal in stitching alliances in the past, and it is difficult to visualise an anti-BJP front that does not have the CPM as its core constituent.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is the oldest alliance partner of the Congress, has kept the issue open. Sometime back its superemo Sharad Pawar disclosed that Rahul Gandhi had not met him after assuming the office of the Congress president. Pawar likes to keep his cards close to the chest, and would only reveal his strategy at the eleventh hour. Many senior opposition leaders are of the opinion that he could be a major player in any initiative against the present government since he enjoys enormous goodwill in political circles.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), despite the sentencing of its top leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, is likely to be a major player on the centre stage of national politics. According to reports emanating from Bihar, the RJD was likely to pose many difficulties for both Nitish Kumar and his ally, the BJP. It can be recalled that during the Assembly polls, Lalu, like Nitish, had shown immense hesitation in sharing the dais with Rahul. It is improbable that his opinion on the matter would change even though the Congress has supported him during his bad times.

Within the Congress, there is a section which has been unable to reconcile with Rahul’s leadership. It was not without a reason that earlier in the week, Sonia Gandhi informed her colleagues that after becoming the Congress president, Rahul was her boss as well. The signal which she wished to send out was that since she had accepted him as her leader, others should follow suit. Sonia’s initiative in inviting Opposition leaders for taking a stand on various issues can in political circles be interpreted as her realisation regarding the reservation some of these Opposition leaders have concerning Rahul.

On his part, Rahul is functioning as a Lone Ranger and he has not been able to announce his team so far, settling for status quo, which was the most pronounced trait of his predecessor. The message that has gone out is that the new president was averse to changing the inner circle that surrounded Sonia and was needlessly delaying making crucial announcements. The delay is being viewed as indecision on his part.

The Congress president has also been unable to demonstrate his hold over the organisation; this is evident from the fact that the dates and venue of the AICC plenary have yet to be announced. In Punjab, though he has met Chief Minister Amarinder Singh several times in the past few months, the Cabinet formation remains incomplete even 11 months after the party came to power. In Karnataka where he is campaigning, he has not been able to rope in dissenting party men. At least two prominent leaders from the state have already predicted that during the Assembly polls Congress would lose the state. Surely these are ominous signs.

There is also a perception that within the party, his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra enjoys a greater clout. It is not a secret anymore that the two, Rahul and Priyanka, have their own views and methods of doing politics, and behind the facade of togetherness, exists a vicious sibling rivalry.

Some political pundits have been holding the opinion that the Opposition unity was paramount and the 2003 model of the Shimla Conclave could be replicated to humble the BJP and the NDA. However, what needs to be comprehended is that the situation is quite different than what it was in July 2003 when Sonia Gandhi invited secular parties to join a coalition which she was willing to lead. At that time, the Congress had more than 110 MPs in the Lok Sabha and was in power in nearly a dozen states. It, therefore, had the status and credentials to be the commander of the alliance.

In 2003, another important factor was that there were astute leaders like Arjun Singh, Makhan Lal Fotedar and Pranab Mukherjee who possessed the political acumen and wisdom to finalise implementable strategies. All of them were persistent negotiators and comprehended the plus and minus points of Opposition leaders so as to bring them to the negotiating table. Even today there are capable persons in the party but they remain sidelined for reasons best known to its High Command.   

The party, under Rahul’s leadership, has first to win some states to accrue the political supremacy over its allies. Therefore, it is in its own interest that the Congress backs out of the leadership role, and facilitates a formidable coalition to face Modi’s BJP. In the meantime, Rahul can simultaneously strengthen the organisation that is virtually non-existent in most states. The entire Opposition must pay attention to its objective of defeating the BJP. In order to attain that, the debate over the leadership role of the Congress should take a back-seat.