THE CONGRESS Sunday sent out an unambiguous message to present and potential allies that while it was open to state-specific alliances for the 2019 elections, its pan-India footprint could make it the single largest party in which case Rahul Gandhi will be the prime ministerial face.
The party also moved to erase the perception that Sonia Gandhi will lead alliance talks and made clear that Rahul, or leaders chosen by him, will talk to parties about tie-ups.
After a meeting of the extended Congress Working Committee (CWC) chaired by Rahul, the first after he took over as president eight months ago, the Congress said he was “setting up a group” to look into the alliance question. Attended by 239 leaders, the CWC brainstormed for nearly five hours to bring clarity on its “mission 2019” strategy and the political situation — as many as 35 leaders spoke.
Former union minister P Chidambaram gave a detailed presentation in which he touched upon the alliance question. “Chidambaram pointed out that the Congress is facing a serious challenge in the 80 seats of Uttar Pradesh, 42 seats of West Bengal, 40 seats of Bihar, 39 seats of Tamil Nadu…this itself adds up to around 200 seats. He said that in states where the Congress is weak currently, we must sew up regional alliances to take on the BJP,” Congress leader Randeep Surjewala told reporters at a press conference later.
According to Surjewala, Chidambaram said that “in multiple states, there are a dozen and-a-half where the Congress is the leading party…and in those states, the Congress should lead”.
Surjewala said that “Congress is the only party in India which has a unit from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Porbandar to Tripura”.
“We may have won less number of seats in 2014 but that does not mean that our presence is not much larger than any other party in the country. The Congress fights, since Independence, the largest number of Parliamentary seats. Once the Congress becomes the single largest party, touching the magic figure of 200 or more, naturally, then Congress will be leading whoever else wants to come in and walk hand in hand. And naturally then the Congress president would be the only face to be projected,” he said.
Surjewala said that the Congress would fight “this election under the stewardship and by putting forward our leader Rahul Gandhi”.
“Naturally, he is the leader of the main national (Opposition) party and we would want our leader to be the face of the Opposition alliance,” AICC general secretary Ambika Soni said. Several leaders, sources said, told the CWC that the party should not sacrifice its interests while entering into alliances. That Congress should be the core of the alliance, they said.
Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot is learnt to have said that the Congress must be the “pivot” around which alliances are formed. According to sources, he said that only the Congress has the bandwidth to challenge and defeat the BJP at the national level. While regional parties are important in states, and the party should talk to them, it is only the Congress that can hold the alliance together, Pilot is learnt to have said.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh told reporters that alignments will have to happen at the national level.
Asked if he was open to an alliance with AAP in Punjab, he said, “This is a decision to be taken at the national level. The alliances will be dependent on where the central leadership takes us. And wherever it takes us, we will go.”
The Congress line came a day after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee announced a mega “federal front” rally in Kolkata on January 19 in which Opposition parties would be invited. Banerjee had also asserted that TMC will go it alone in Bengal and win all the 42 Lok Sabha seats.
“Let’s not consider one statement as a final posture,” Surjewala said. Banerjee has Congress pedigree, he said, and “everything that is said at a particular time in the run up to the alliance is not necessarily correct”.
At the CWC meeting, Rahul, Sonia and former prime minister Manmohan Singh hit out at the BJP.
Rahul told the CWC that the BJP is attacking institutions, individuals and groups. The rights of Dalits, tribals, minorities, women and youth are being trampled upon, he said.
Sonia told the CWC that the “reverse countdown” of the Modi government has begun. She said the ideology of the ruling party is spreading an atmosphere of hatred and fear in the country. She argued that the “increasing rhetoric of Prime Minister Modi shows his desperation and reflecting that reverse countdown of Modi government has begun”.
“I reject the culture of constant self praise and jumlas as against solid policy framework to address the issues facing the country and propel and drive the engine of growth as far as India’s economy and people’s well-being is considered,” Manmohan Singh said.
He pointed out that GDP growth during the decade-long rule of UPA was 7.4 per cent as against the 7.1 per cent “even on changed numbers”.
The CWC, meanwhile, decided to organise a nationwide mass movement to highlight issues like agrarian distress, joblessness, state of the economy, atrocities against Dalits and tribals, attacks on women, foreign policy and worsening internal security and restoration of institutional integrity to take on the BJP-led government.