The mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) idea, which until the other day appeared to be a remote possibility given the disparate nature of the political parties and the galloping ambitions of regional forces, has got a boost with the Congress registering convincing victories in three large Hindi heartland States, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Rahul Gandhi has been firmly established in the saddle.
“The mahagathbandhan under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is the most obvious corollary now. Even before the results came in, on the basis of exit poll projections, 21 opposition parties came together on December 10 under his leadership,” said the senior Congress leader and spokesman Shakeel Ahmad. The opposition parties’ meeting on December 10 was held ostensibly to discuss their strategy in the winter session of Parliament.
It was interesting to see senior leaders like Sharad Yadav, Sharad Pawar, H.D. Deve Gowda and N. Chandrababu Naidu taking a back seat as Rahul Gandhi took the microphone to address the media on December 10. Shakeel Ahmad said: “Questions over his leadership are settled now. As far as the Congress is concerned, we have demonstrated that we can defeat the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in a direct contest. Now it is for the others to decide whether they want to defeat the BJP or not.”
As the Congress sees it, other opposition parties will fall in line subsequently because of their political compulsions. “Only the Congress and the BJP are national parties now with a pan India presence. Others have their influence mostly in one or at the most two States, so I don’t see any hurdles in the way of a grand alliance,” Shakeel Ahmad said. But he reiterated that alliances would have to be State-specific.
But managing disparate parties and their leaders in one group will be a difficult task, and Congress leaders realise this—especially in a scenario where two rival groups are willing to be friends with the Congress. West Bengal, for example, admit senior leaders, is going to be a tricky one, where the Congress will need to do a balancing act. According to senior Congress leaders, the party would like to have both the Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) as allies. But expecting the two to be part of the same front is foolhardy, so a formula will have to be worked out. “Maybe one would be inside the alliance and the other would offer outside support. We have to figure that out,” said a senior leader. In the case of West Bengal, which the BJP is eyeing as its next big catch after Tripura, if all the non-BJP parties come together on one platform, the BJP may mop up all the anti-Trinamool votes. Congress leaders say that they will have to watch out for such a scenario.
Uttar Pradesh will also need some careful planning. Given the Congress’ weak organisational structure there and the major chunk of the votes resting with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the party should ensure a respectable share of seats in the State in order to avoid sending out negative signals. The S.P. and the BSP, which have already come together in Uttar Pradesh, do not consider that the Congress deserves more than two seats, Amethi and Rae Bareli. But settling for just two will expose the party to ridicule from the BJP and send out a negative signal to voters. Congress leaders hope that the recent Assembly election results will persuade the the S.P. and the BSP to change their attitude.
In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, BSP supremo Mayawati spurned the Congress and decided to contest alone, but she quickly came around once the results came in. When the Congress fell short by just two seats, she was the first to offer support, saying the BSP had fought the election to prevent the BJP from coming back to power.
Congress leaders are hopeful similar wisdom will prevail in Uttar Pradesh when seat-sharing talks begin. “Now that we have demonstrated our strength in a direct contest with the BJP, we have better bargaining power,” one Congress leader said.
Independent observers from Uttar Pradesh, however, are quite clear that voters have gone back to the Congress now even in Uttar Pradesh, and this should be clear to the S.P. and the BSP, too. Observers said that if the S.P. and the BSP did not treat the Congress well and fought the Lok Sabha election without including the Congress in an alliance, voters would see through their game and dump them. Bihar was once a tricky State for the Congress but not any more because the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejaswi Yadav has established a good rapport with Rahul Gandhi and should have no problem accepting his leadership. Besides, with both the S.P.’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and the RJD’s Laloo Yadav out of the race, the Congress should have no problem doing business with these parties now. “There are no more ego hassles to be sorted out any more,” as a senior Congress leader said.
Senior Congress leaders are basing their optimism on the fact that in 2014, when the party won the lowest number of seats ever (44), its strength was still bigger than that of any other opposition political party and cannot go below that mark now. For example, in Gujarat, the BJP won all 26 seats; in Madhya Pradesh, 27 out of 29 seats; in Rajasthan, all 25 seats; in Chhattisgarh, nine out of 11 seats; in Jharkhand, 13 out of 14 seats; in Himachal Pradesh, all four seats; in Uttarakhand, all five seats; and in Delhi, all seven seats. “They can never replicate this sort of performance now. If we manage to forge intelligent alliances, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP will not cross even 100 seats. And this, I am sure, is clear to our potential allies, too,” said Shakeel Ahmad. And this will be the basis for future negotiations now.
But the moot question remains, will the Congress declare Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial face? Is it going to be a “Modi vs Rahul” contest? Senior Congress leaders, who would not say it in as many words, indicated that that was quite obvious now. In any alliance, the leader of the party with the largest number of seats would be the Prime Minister, they said, pointing out that in answer to a question earlier Rahul Gandhi himself had made it clear that if the Congress won the largest number of seats, he would be happy to become the Prime Minister.
But all that remains in the realm of conjecture at the moment and a lot depends on future combinations. There is no doubt, however, about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership role in the Congress. Although Sonia Gandhi would continue to be very much in the picture, holding talks with senior leaders, Congress leaders happily declare that Rahul Gandhi has finally arrived and can manage the party well with help from his mother and senior colleagues. He has demonstrated his ability to carry both senior leaders and the Young Turks, they say. And this combination of experience and youth, they hope, will deliver results.
Purnima S. Tripathi