Congress in a tight spot
The debate on the no-confidence motion in Parliament last Friday gave Congress President Rahul Gandhi the much-awaited opportunity to make an election pitch and lash out at the Narendra Modi government on a number of issues from Rafale deal to farm crisis. All guns blazing, a completely transformed Congress president delivered a 55-minute long speech, in which he passionately enumerated the issues on which his party was against the policies of the current NDA government. At the end of his speech, he famously hugged the Prime Minister and winked at him, saying that the Congress ideology does not allow him to harbour a feeling of hatred against anybody. Taken aback by his sudden change in tack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now at pains to explain what it meant: he tried to explain the hug and wink in Parliament and also at a farmers' rally next day at UP's Shahjahanpur. Clearly, Congress President was not only in his element during the debate on the no-confidence motion, he also proved that he is capable of making political somersault when it is least expected. His fiery speech followed by a hug-wink was a clear demonstration of his flexibility as a leader when it comes to making difficult choices. Close on the heels, the extended Congress Working Committee (CWC) on Sunday authorised him to forge an anti-BJP alliance with like-minded parties for 2019 Lok Sabha elections. During the five-hour meeting in which sitting CMs of the Congress, state chiefs, and legislature party leaders were also invited, Rahul Gandhi admitted that expanding the Congress party's base would be its toughest challenge. Party stalwarts like former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured that they would support the Congress president in choosing the path of social harmony and economic growth while Rahul Gandhi termed the revamped CWC the bridge between the present, past, and future.
In the last Lok Sabha election, Congress fared its worst and could win only 48 seats against BJP's 273 seats. The dramatic rise of BJP in the overall seat tally was attributed to its alliance with smaller parties under the umbrella of NDA, which has 46 regional and smaller parties as its constituents. The coming together of these parties under the fold of NDA helped BJP consolidate the votes in favour of a common BJP or alliance candidate by stopping the division of votes. In Contras, the Congress-led UPA has only 14 constituents. Clearly, in order to take on the Narendra Modi government in the upcoming Lok Sabha election next year, the UPA needs to have more allies and Congress needs to take initiative to forge new alliances with smaller parties across the country. As a youth leader, Rahul not only promises new energy and enthusiasm in his work but also comes without the baggage of the past. His youthful presence in the fray will inspire the party workers as well as voters, a large chunk of whom are youth themselves. He is likely to push an agenda that is geared up to respond to the hopes and aspiration of the youth. But whether he will be able to find allies to contest the next Lok Sabha election along with his party is a difficult question, given the fact that most of the regional parties are in a mood to form a non-Congress, non-BJP federal alliance. And, with its government in 20 states and 46 parties under the NDA fold, BJP has left little room for the Congress to expand its base.
Amid the growing aspiration of regional parties and the diminishing ability of Congress to win elections on its own, the party is in a tight spot. However, it has the organisational network and a share of votes across the country. Any move to stop the division of opposition votes will have to reckon with the importance of Congress, which has displayed the flexibility to play the junior role despite winning more seats in Karnataka or by forging an alliance with Samajwadi Party and contesting less number of seats than its alliance partner in UP Assembly election in 2017.
While important opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee are of the view that Congress should be made part of the opposition alliance, the tricky issue of ticket distribution can be a serious roadblock, even in Bengal. Even without Congress, the issue of ticket distribution and zeroing in on a common opposition candidate will be a difficult task for the opposition leaders. But ignoring Congress altogether would be a much more harmful move for the opposition as the party still has the ability to eat into opposition votes and tilt the balance.