Congress’ waiting game over State elections threatens INDIA bloc’s chances in 2024

Regional parties are growing impatient with the Congress’ lack of urgency.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, DMK leader T.R. Baalu, Congress general secretary in-charge (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and AAP leader Raghav Chadha at the residence of NCP chief Sharad Pawar after an INDIA Alliance Coordination Committee meeting, in New Delhi.

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, DMK leader T.R. Baalu, Congress general secretary in-charge (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and AAP leader Raghav Chadha at the residence of NCP chief Sharad Pawar after an INDIA Alliance Coordination Committee meeting, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Ishant/ANI

The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc has powerful members, some of whom have founded political parties while others have inherited them. In meetings in Patna, Bengaluru and Mumbai, they have all reiterated the urgent need to defeat the BJP in the 2024 general election. Yet, INDIA is currently on a break at the will of the Congress and much to the irritation of some regional and State parties.

The Congress is waiting for the election results to the five State assemblies, something the party believes will give them a tailwind in the 2024 contest. It could also, they hope, place them in a stronger position to negotiate seat sharing with other parties. (The Assembly results will be declared on December 3).

This does go against the spirit of what was decided at the last meeting of the alliance held in Mumbai on September 1. The decision was that they would contest the general election together “as far as possible” and seat-sharing talks would be initiated “immediately”. Indeed, sources reveal that there was a push by parties such as the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the Tejaswi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal that seat-sharing negotiations should begin by September end and be completedno later than October 15 to 30.

Also Read | Telangana might deliver the most significant result in the State elections

But that was not to be. An opposition leader quipped that the INDIA alliance was led by multiple engines and not by one engine with train carriages attached to it. And one of those multiple engines appears to be very busy at the moment. A leader of another party says bluntly that they have given a formula for seat-sharing but have got no response, so they are finalising their own candidates—if any adjustments have to be made, it will happen later.

Need for urgency

Opposition leaders had harped on the need for urgency and had elaborated on a three-tier strategy for seat-sharing. First, the Congress could finalise a blueprint in States where it is already part of the ruling alliance. This includes Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Jharkhand. Maharashtra is crucial and the seat-sharing has to be worked out with two parties that have witnessed splits and are not in power; but the Shiv Sena and the NCP have sympathy/support in the State that sends the second largest contingent of MPs (48) to the Lok Sabha. Next, the Congress could shortlist and even finalise Lok Sabha candidates in States such as Karnataka where it does not have to negotiate with allies.

The third stage is the most challenging as the Congress must come to arrangements (or not) in regions where it has competed with other parties. This includes West Bengal, which sends 42 Lok Sabha MPs to Parliament, where the TMC is the dominant force. The AAP, too, falls in the category of parties that have wreaked havoc on the Congress but now see strategic adjustments as the need of the hour. The AAP has indicated that it is keen on seat-sharing. If the Congress and the AAP do come to an arrangement and project strong candidates, there can be a contest in the seven Lok Sabha seats in the national capital (in the last two State and national elections, the people voted decisively for the AAP in the State but for the BJP at the Centre).

But the Congress has not responded to the prodding from other parties—as yet. This tendency to continue to live one day at a time even while claiming to lead a mammoth coalition, has already led to a minor explosion from Samajwadi Party leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. He recently lashed out at the Congress for refusing to share even a few seats in neighbouring election-bound Madhya Pradesh. Later, he backed down.

Social justice card

Akhilesh Yadav operates in one of the most BJP-dominant States; his party is a product of Mandal-era politics but has lost some Backward Caste support to the BJP. His Muslim voters, meanwhile, are beleaguered and there is anecdotal evidence of their names vanishing from voter lists even as politicians such as Azam Khan, former SP MP from Rampur, have been jailed (along with his wife and son) on charges that would not have invited such punishment in the past. (The entire family has been given a seven-year jail term for forging the son’s birth certificate and are lodged in separate jails).

Still, although the SP has organisational structures unlike the Congress, the Muslim community (20 per cent of the population in Uttar Pradesh) may want to vote for a national party in a general election. What could also irritate Akhilesh is that the Congress has, for 2023-24, picked up the social justice/caste census card. It was the national party’s oblivious approach to this reality that historically led to its decline in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Unlike the SP, the Mandal-era parties of Bihar are still in power in that State and comfortable with the idea of benefiting from any possible goodwill that the structurally weak Congress could generate post the December 3 results.

There is a different reality facing the TMC. it has already made an offer of two seats to the Congress from the State’s 42. Its formula is based on studying the vote share in the last Assembly or Lok Sabha election or a combination of the two. The Congress has not responded but the TMC could actually soldier on alone as the dominant party in the State. The Congress also has an option of tying up with the Left Front in West Bengal.

This pitch, however, gets queered by the fact that the CPI leadership has suggested that Rahul Gandhi should not contest from Wayanad in Kerala. That is the State where Left parties have the best chance to get a few MPs elected, but it is also where the Congress would be seeking to shore up its Lok Sabha numbers. This is a fault line that the Congress and the Left will have to negotiate in their combined purpose of defeating the BJP.

Also Read | State elections will test the waters for 2024 Lok Sabha race

The greatest challenge would be for the Congress and the AAP to come together. Were it to materialise, it would also open new territories in Delhi and Haryana (where the AAP has been working on the ground) that have in recent national elections voted for the BJP. The BJP has limited stakes in Punjab where the AAP is in power and many of the old Congress leadership built around former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh have shifted to the BJP. Still, the Congress does have a vote share in Punjab, although whatever remains of the State unit is fiercely against the AAP. But should the Congress get momentum, people can choose a national party in a State that turned fiercely anti-BJP first due to the farm agitation and then the rift with Canada.

There is a complex matrix before the INDIA bloc, which shifts from State to State. Satraps of non-Congress parties say time is of the essence when you prepare the ground to fight a structurally strong and cash-rich party like the BJP. The Congress, conversely, says there is a right time for everything, and it will come after December 3. On the plus side, almost all the regional players agree that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge is very civil and approachable, and that helps. They also see him as a political asset because of his social origins.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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