Resurgence of Congress
The fear of a domineering Grand Old Party revisits allies and rivals alike
Even the limited signs of the revival of Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh have revived the old apprehensions about the 133-year-old party's penchant for dominance in the years immediately after Independence.
It is not only BJP which is so uneasy about its main adversary's political clout with Prime Minister Narendra Modi spending much of his time criticising the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and making the rather fatuous claim that four years of his rule were better than four decades of Congress' reign, but even some of the latter's own allies have been targeting the Grand Old Party although most people will say that it no longer qualifies for that title.
In the context of Modi's tirades against the 'naamdar' people of the dynasty and the uneasiness voiced by Congress' allies, few would believe that the party was down in the dumps only four years ago when it was reduced to its lowest ever Lok Sabha tally of 44 seats and even one of Congress' own members thought that the party was suffering from an "existential crisis".
In contrast, Congress is now seen to be emerging as a major challenger to the ruling BJP in three heartland states with the distinct possibility of pipping it at the post in at least two of them and even winning in Telangana. It is obvious that such an achievement will pitchfork Congress into the front lines of the political stage, enhancing the possibility of the party leading the charge against BJP in 2019.
The first party to be unnerved by this revival was BSP, which broke away from the seat-sharing talks with Congress and decided to contest on its own in Madhya Pradesh in an alliance with a breakaway Congress outfit in Chhattisgarh.
Now, BSP's partner in Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party (SP), which is contesting 51 seats in Madhya Pradesh, has also attacked the Congress, saying that it "doesn't give us any importance". Earlier, Mayawati, too, had accused Congress of being "arrogant".
Given these strains in the relations between Congress and its supposed allies, it now appears unlikely that there will be any understanding of SP and BSP with Congress in UP. As is known, it was the SP-BSP alliance which defeated BJP in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections and also in Kairana where the tie-up included the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Congress.
Unless Congress is able to mend its fences with SP and BSP, it will be difficult to achieve the Opposition's dream of forming a 'mahagathbandhan' (grand alliance) against BJP. A failure on this account may not matter much in UP where Congress no longer has much influence outside the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies. Even then, the party will be severely discomfited if it does not get the SP's and BSP's support in these two pocket boroughs of the dynasty from where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi fight the elections. Besides, any hint that Congress's "arrogance" tends to alienate its allies cannot be helpful to the party at the national level and is bound to be exploited by BJP.
Although Congress is now a shadow of its former self, it still remains by far the number one party in the country in popular perception even if its presence in states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu remains marginal. It is the party's responsibility, therefore, to take the lead in healing whatever rift there is among the "secular" parties lest the divisions among them play into BJP's hands.
It is now widely recognised that a mahagathbandhan is the only answer to the problem of effectively confronting BJP. As the success of such an arrangement in Bihar in 2015 proved, it is possible to stop the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut in its tracks. The present dissenting voices in the secular camp, mainly that of BSP, have to be persuaded, therefore, to look beyond their immediate caste-based electoral concerns in order to keep BJP at bay.
To achieve this objective, the first imperative is to shun the opportunism of the kind displayed by Janata Dal (United) in Bihar where it broke the mahagathbandhan to align with BJP. If Janata Dal (United)'s grouse was that it was being overshadowed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, BSP's fears are of losing much of its Dalit base to Congress if an understanding between the two parties lasts for any length of time because of the latter's manipulative record.
Much depends, of course, on the reliability of leaders, especially of a major party. It was Jawaharlal Nehru's promise to Tamils that Hindi will not be imposed on non-Hindi-speaking citizens which defused the volatile situation in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. It is up to Rahul and Sonia Gandhi to assure its present and would-be partners that Congress will play fair even by bending backwards on occasions.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)