The Congress Party’s regional and ideological partners are fed up with the Grand Old Party’s big brother attitude. The BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) were more than irritated by the Congress’ attitude towards them in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh after the Assembly election victories in those states last December. The Left Front parties in West Bengal are puzzled by the Congress’ evasive stance over their seat-sharing in West Bengal. And the party’s arch-rival in Delhi, the AamAadmi Party (AAP), was open to an alliance but it has gone on its own because the Congress was unable to decide whether to ally with the AAP or not.
It is not that the Congress does not understand the compulsion for alliances in the 2019 LokSabha election as it did in 2004. Then party president Sonia Gandhi walked the extra mile to tie up with even a small party like the LokJanshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan. In 2004, the Congress was agreeable to alliances, and the Left parties could consider the option of going with the Congress on their own terms. This time around, the Congress is on the periphery because it does not command a respectable number of seats in the outgoing LokSabha. The other parties too are not in a commanding position either. All of them recognise that they need to close ranks to defeat the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) under the redoubtable leadership of Prime Minister NarendraModi. The Modi factor is a key issue in their poll calculations.
There are numerous political experts and observers who are angry with the Congress for not forging a viable anti-Modi, anti-BJP alliance even if it means that the party has to eat humble pie. Many of the experts hate the Congress and its domineering and cynical ways as much as they hate the Hindutva ideology of the BJP. But forced to make a choice between the Congress and the BJP, they grudgingly concede that the Congress is a key player in Opposition unity. But at the same time, they demand that the Congress get off its high horse and sit along with other parties on terms of equality. They would even prefer that the Congress should play second fiddle to the other anti-BJP parties. Most of these experts experience a perverse glee when they see the Congress Party is shown its place.
Inside the Congress Party, there are those who oppose alliances, and those who favour it. Those who favour alliances are those who feel that Indian politics has changed from the days when the it was the single dominant party, and that the Congress must learn to adjust to the new situation when caste and social groups which were once part of the broader coalition in the party have now walked out and created their own base and space. This is so in the case of dalits and the BSP. The upper caste brahmins, especially in Uttar Pradesh, have found an alternative in the BJP, while the Muslims are looking to the SP and the BSP. There is also the feeling in this group that the Congress cannot address the issues of regional identity and influence.
But there is a group within the Congress, who may be called old-fashioned and even antiquated, who think that if the Congress were to give too much space to the others, then the party will cease to exist. It has happened in Tamil Nadu, where the party yielded space to the two major regional parties, the DravidaMunnetraKazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna DravidaMunnetraKazhagam (AIADMK). There is a minority in Tamil Nadu which argues that the party should go it alone and rebuild itself in the state. A similar group exists in Uttar Pradesh, which holds the view that the party should protect its own base and expand it, and not look for short-term gains. During the 2007 UP Assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi, then a party general secretary, believed that the Congress should go it alone and shun alliances. He seems to be drawn in the opposite direction when he has to take a call as party president in 2019.
The war within the party is not due to any extraneous pressures. It is about core beliefs about what the party should be.
It will be argued that the BJP too is in a similar position to that of the Congress, in its need of allies, and that it is going about it in a positive way. But then the BJP is in a stronger position as it has remained the single largest party. The Congress will attain to that position if it wins more than 150 seats. It fell below the 150 mark in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004. It was only in 2009 that it won 206 seats. And it 2014, it hit a new low of falling below the 50 mark. The Congress therefore cannot set its sights too high when it is bargaining on seat-sharing with potential allies.
The party should fight on its own and win as many seats as it can, whether it is in Uttar Pradesh, in West Bengal or in any other state. It should also position itself as a party on its own in all the states and in all state Assembly elections. It cannot stumble from election to election and seek to be in power with the help of allies. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan have passed through difficult times and survived. The Congress too can.