Ever since the Congress was routed in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, there have been calls from within for an organisational overhaul. That hasn’t happened, but the party has made four significant political manoeuvres of late — including the alliance with the Samajwadi Party – which give a measure of the its assessment of its own strength ahead of the 2019 elections. These alliances point to a significant unburdening of the past, perhaps with an eye on the future.
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Over the past 20 years, the DMK and AIADMK have joined hands and broken ties with the Congress several times. In 1996, the ADMK tied up with the Congress for both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. It embraced the BJP two years later, and returned to the Congress in 1999 and in the 2001 Assembly elections. They broke up soon after, and the DMK-Congress swept the state in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. After that, the Congress and ADMK never allied with each other, and the late J Jayalalithaa bitterly attacked the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi has now sought to bury this rancorous past — realising that an antagonistic relationship with the ADMK is not in its long-term interest. He has not shut the door on the DMK, but has opened a window to the ADMK. Rahul made a surprise visit to Chennai to meet Jaya when she was in hospital, gladdening the hearts of ADMK leaders, and then attended her funeral.
Rahul also flew to Chennai to meet DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi when he was in hospital. Nonetheless, the DMK has been unnerved. No wonder M K Stalin rushed senior leader Tiruchi Siva to Delhi to be by Rahul’s side when the Congress vice-president addressed a press conference with Mamata Banerjee over demonetisation, despite many Opposition parties staying away. Siva himself was not keen, but Stalin insisted. With Tamil Nadu politics in flux after Jaya’s death, the Congress has managed to send out a signal that nobody is untouchable in politics.
When Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee was seething with anger over the arrest of party MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay in the Rose Valley chit fund case, the Congress central leadership readily shared her outrage. The ties between Mamata and Congress too have been on a rollercoaster. She became part of UPA II in 2009 and the parties fought the Assembly elections together in 2011. A year later, she withdrew support to the UPA, and last year, the Congress fought the Assembly elections with the CPM-led Left. Mamata had the last laugh then, but the two parties have warmed up since, enraging the Left. With the Saradha chit fund scam and Narada sting putting the TMC on the defensive, Mamata is keen to forge deeper ties with non-BJP parties on a national platform, and the Congress is more than willing.
Rahul had wanted to tie up with Mamata last year but the state unit revolted. Now the Congress realises that Mamata cannot be kept out of the pre- and post-2019 equation. Mamata too has national ambitions and wants the Congress by her side. The protests against demonetisation have brought them together like never before since 2012.
The Congress leadership looked the other way after the Bhangar firing — when protests against acquisition of land for a power project turned violent on January 17 — while the party’s state unit was outraged. Like in Tamil Nadu, the Congress has been in electoral wilderness in Bengal for four decades, and is keen to keep its options open with both the TMC and the Left. Mamata has backed the SP-Congress alliance in UP, and reports say she may campaign for the Congress in both UP and Punjab.
BIHAR AND UTTAR PRADESH
The first signal of Congress’s desire to unburden its past came in Bihar when Rahul extended a hand of friendship to Lalu Prasad in 2014. The party was part of the JD(U)-RJD alliance in the 2015 Assembly elections, and is now firmly part of the Nitish-led alliance — despite some anxiety recently over Nitish’s backing for demonetisation.
The Congress feels Nitish cannot go with the BJP, which has little to offer him. A fractured mandate in 2019 will see either a repeat of 1996, when the Congress backed the United Front government, or 2004, when the Congress headed a coalition government. Given that, the Congress feels Nitish would want the party by his side. The Congress too wants Nitish and Lalu if it hopes to come back to power at the Centre.
The UP alliance is not surprising — even though the Congress had announced a CM candidate and begun a campaign blitz.
Together, these four states send 200 MPs to the Lok Sabha and the Congress is at best a marginal player in each of them. With 2019 in mind, it wants strong regional players in these states as friends.