In a deft move aimed at wooing the Left parties in order to curtail the growing influence of the BJP in West Bengal, the Congress has offered to support CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury for Rajya Sabha if he agrees to contest as a joint nominee of the two parties. Yechury, who retired from the Upper House in August last year, after serving two terms, has been a strong votary of an alliance with the Congress to check the increasing political domination of the saffron brigade. However, recently he was overruled by his own party, and the CPM unanimously decided not to have any electoral truck with the Congress, which was its rival both in West Bengal and in Kerala.
Playing absolutely safe while inviting Yechury to be a Rajya Sabha nominee from the state, West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury earlier in the week made it clear that his party was also willing to accommodate a prominent independent candidate, in case the CPM turned down his proposal. The invitation is understood to have been extended, after Chowdhury obtained the tacit approval of his high command, which has, from the very beginning, been inclined towards roping in the Left parties for the overall unity of the Opposition to take on the BJP in the 2019 Parliamentary polls. However, within the Congress, there is a section that prefers an understanding with the Trinamool Congress, instead of the Left parties so as to keep both the CPM and BJP at bay.
The Congress has 44 members, while the CPM has 26 members in the West Bengal Assembly, which is dominated by the Trinamool Congress representatives in the 295-member House. The Trinamool, with 211 members, can effortlessly get four of its candidates elected to the Rajya Sabha election slated for 23 March. The fifth seat can be won by the Opposition parties if they join hands to support a common candidate. However, if the Opposition pitches separate nominees, the Trinamool may be in a position to win the fifth seat as well. Thus there would be pressure on the CPM to have an electoral adjustment with the Congress, though an easy way out could be to collectively support an independent in the same manner as the Trinamool had backed the candidacy of Congress nominee Pradip Bhattacharya last year. Chowdhury, is obviously, advocating a different formula.
In addition, to the unconditional offer by Chowdhury, there was immense speculation on whether the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi would be open to entering the august house from West Bengal, thus vacating her Lok Sabha seat in Rae Bareli for either Congress president Rahul Gandhi or for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. At the same time there has been conjecturing about Priyanka making her electoral debut from Amethi (now held by Rahul), while her brother may move to Rae Bareli, a seat once represented by their grandparents, the late Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
A senior Congress leader, while dismissing the assumption of Sonia Gandhi shifting to Rajya Sabha, stated it was purely based on political gossip and the rumour mills going on an overdrive. “Soniaji was not seeking any move to Rajya Sabha, and was totally content with her role as the UPA chairperson. The supposition that she wanted to become the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Upper House and thus enjoy a Cabinet status had absolutely no basis.”
However, Congress sources insisted that a while ago at a very preliminary stage there was a proposal to consider P. Chidambaram, former Finance Minister, as the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha in place of Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was to be entrusted with organisational responsibilities given his vast experience. Nevertheless, it is unlikely, that in the wake of the controversy surrounding Chidambaram’s son, Karti that there would be any change in the leadership. Azad, on his part, recently hosted a dinner attended, amongst others, by former President Pranab Mukherjee, former Vice President Hamid Ansari and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to demonstrate his political leverage. Shortly after that, he is understood to have hosted another dinner at his residence for former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.
Meanwhile, the Congress is waiting for a response from the CPM, which is determined at keeping the Congress out of any alliance it may stitch for the Parliamentary polls. Yechury so far seems to be in a minority on the question of a tie-up with the Congress, though his critics admit that his presence in Parliament, at this stage, was paramount. In 2004, the CPM had supported the UPA after Sonia Gandhi formed the “secular” front to take on the BJP and its alliance partners. Former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat, who wields considerable power in his party, had also a sizable role in preventing veteran leader Jyoti Basu from becoming Prime Minister in 1996 before H.D. Deve Gowda was chosen to be the head of the government. However, it is to be seen whether in the light of the electoral rout in its Tripura bastion, the CPM would continue to remain rigid regarding political adjustments or on the other hand pursue a more pragmatic approach.