The meltdown of Congress-Mayawati relations is proof that India’s Grand Old Party is often its own biggest enemy. At a time when its organisation is in a shambles, its cadre base is depleting and its state governments number fewer than five, the least the Congress could have done was to hold on to its prospective ally, the Bahujan Samaj Party, in the forthcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, even if it meant sacrificing a few extra seats in these states—in Rajasthan in particular. BSP chief Mayawati matters in Indian politics, despite her party’s poor showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. She commands a loyal vote bank and has the ability to transfer her votes to her alliance partner, en bloc, which is not a mean feat. In fact, Congress does not have this quality. There is no doubt that she would have added numbers to Congress’ kitty in the closely contested seats in Madhya Pradesh, especially in areas adjoining Uttar Pradesh, where the BSP had drawn a minimum of 10,000 votes in many seats in 2013. But to cut a deal with the BSP in a state where the Congress is not exactly the frontrunner, the national party would have had to give her a generous tally of seats in Rajasthan, where the Congress believes it can come to power on its own. From all accounts, Congress leaders refused to do so, point blank, apart from pruning the number of seats she asked for in MP. No alliance can be a one-way street. The fundamental rule of alliance politics is that there has to be give and take, some sort of quid pro quo. No party can strive under the notion that an alliance is a charity, where the smaller partner keeps giving and the larger partner keeps taking; that, in this case, the Congress will be in the driver’s seat and the regional parties will fall in line, be it in the states now, or at the Centre later, as though keen to ensure that a third act of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government returns in 2019. Its critics say that this belief has largely to do with the Congress’ hubris that just because it has ruled India for 70 years, it is the rightful ruler of the country, and that the present situation, where it has to scramble for allies just to stay relevant, is an aberration.

It is obvious that the Congress has not given up the hope of leading the anti-Narendra Modi Grand Alliance, if it ever comes into existence. Rahul Gandhi admitted as much on Friday when he said that he would not mind becoming the Prime Minister if the allies wanted him to take up the top job. The Congress high command seems to believe that their party will sweep the forthcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, which will boost its performance to such an extent that it will win the majority of the 120-odd Lok Sabha seats where it is pitted directly against the BJP. And once that goal is achieved, the Congress, with the maximum number of seats, will automatically get the Prime Minister’s chair and the biggest say in government formation. But the party is not taking three things into consideration: One, the BJP would any day prefer to have a head-to-head contest with the Congress, over a fight where a number of parties come together to consolidate the Opposition vote. Any direct fight becomes a contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, where the BJP will portray the Congress president as being no match to the Prime Minister. Two, it would be premature for the Congress to base its electoral strategy on the assumption that it will sweep all three states, especially since the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is a formidable electoral machine and does not believe in giving its opponents a walkover. Three, declaring Rahul Gandhi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions is not the best magnet for forming a Mahagathbandhan, especially when the Opposition camp is teeming with Prime Ministerial hopefuls who are not only much senior to Rahul in age and political and administrative experience, but who also consider the Congress president to be a liability. Wherever the regional parties are powerful, they have made it clear that they do not need the Congress. In fact, in Uttar Pradesh, chances are that the “grand alliance” will be between only the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, with the Congress falling by the wayside—or getting a meagre share of seats—as it does not bring anything to the electoral basket for either of the two regional parties. The Congress needs the regional parties, it’s not the other way round.

The talk by Rahul Gandhi of putting the interests of the allies first needs to be acted upon and not vanish in thin air. Is the Rahul-led Congress the same Sonia Congress and its policies and outlook? Hopes of change are fading with the weight in Team Rahul of UPA-era grandees who were rejected by the voters in 2014. Their aim seems to be a return to 2004 in 2019 to bring about a UPA III.

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