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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Why the Congress is going solo

Last Wednesday,as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) was bracing to leave the UPA to align with the AIADMK.....

Written by D K Singh | Published: March 29, 2009 1:37:15 am

Last Wednesday,as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) was bracing to leave the UPA to align with the AIADMK,Union Minister Kapil Sibal said,“Every regional party jostles for space and wants to throw out the national party (from the state). Similarly,the national party does not want to give them space at the national level. This has been there in every election and will continue to be so.” While he was talking of the reality of coalition politics,his remarks explained the grand old party’s positioning vis-à-vis its allies since the Congress Working Committee (CWC)’s decision on January 29 not to have any national alliance with any party. The following days witnessed the emergence of a ‘new Congress’ that was demanding and assertive in its approach to regional partners. It had suddenly undergone a complete transformation—from being a mendicant alliance partner who had agreed to contest just four of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2004 to a “self-respecting” national party whose president Sonia Gandhi refused to entertain a request for appointment from the same leader after he cut a deal with LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan to offer merely three seats to the Congress in Bihar. While Congress sources maintained Lalu’s request was “still under consideration”,an embarrassed RJD chief tried to argue that he had never sought an appointment. On March 17,SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav made overtures to the Congress to enter into a pre-poll alliance in UP. “I am ready for talks (on seat sharing) if the Congress wants,” Mulayam said in Lucknow. “The SP has already put out candidates. Where is the scope for talks,” replied Digvijay Singh,AICC general secretary in charge of UP,in Delhi the same day. The SP was ready to give 17 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP to the Congress—which had won just nine out of 71 seats it had contested in 2004—but the ruling party at the Centre wanted many more in the form of friendly contests. In the months leading to elections in 2004,Sonia had gone out of the way to forge new alliances,calling on CPM leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet,calling up M. Karunanidhi to congratulate him on pulling out of NDA,driving down to NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s home,walking across to her neighbour Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan’s residence,and driving down to BSP leader Mayawati’s Humayun Road residence to greet her on her birthday. In 2009,however,when UPA partners were crying foul about the CWC decision,there was not even a conciliatory statement from the grand old party. While it worked hard to stitch up an alliance with the NCP in Maharashtra,the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal,Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand—and unsuccessfully tried to stop the PMK from walking out of DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu—it showed no such flexibility when it came to its seat-sharing talks with regional parties in the cow belt. Congress sources attributed this change in the Congress’s attitude towards its alliance partners to AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s long-term plan to revive the party in the cow belt—the party’s old bastion that had slipped out of its hold. So when the CWC decided to have only state-specific alliances this year,the writing on the wall was clear. “Rahulji had gone to Bihar in September last year to visit flood-affected areas. He found his party non-existent there. He wanted the party to at least make a beginning in the state and it could not happen if the party remained RJD’s doormat,” said a senior Congress leader close to Rahul. “Rahul is ready to sit in the Opposition for five years,but he wants the party to follow a long-term objective,” said a young party MP. While Rahul,who wanted the party to field young candidates on ‘losing seats’,forwarded a list of candidates recommended by the Youth Congress and the NSUI to those in charge of ticket distribution,he is not making any decisive intervention. While other leaders are focusing on the 2009 election,Rahul is touring the country in a bid to reach out to the youth. “He is working on a long-term plan to revive the party. He is looking at 2014,not 2009,” said a Congress leader. Since 1998,when Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the Congress,there has been a constant soul-searching in the party. While it was forced to accept the necessity of entering into a coalition arrangement,the yearning for past glory never died. At an AICC session in New Delhi in November 2007,the party’s resolution and Sonia Gandhi’s remarks betrayed the party’s ambition. “Coalition means positive support from all sides. But working in a coalition does not mean we lose our political space forever,” Sonia Gandhi said in her address at the AICC session. “Such a coalition cannot be at the cost of revival of the Congress,particularly in States where its base had eroded,” said the party’s resolution. A survey carried out by an agency hired by the Congress had given it 185 seats in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election,according to insiders. The survey had,however,been carried when the RJD,the LJP and the PMK were with the Congress. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy has assured the high command that the party would retain at least 25 seats in Andhra Pradesh. The feedback from Gujarat is “satisfying” as party leaders expect to retain 10 of the 12 seats it won in 2004. The DMK’s position in Tamil Nadu is “not bad”,although the PMK’s exit from the alliance is considered a “setback”. The Congress had received positive feedback from most of the states,except Madhya Pradesh,Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. While the party hopes to gain in the Left bastions of West Bengal and Kerala,the BJP’s preoccupation with its internal squabbles was also a positive from the Congress’s point of view. “If the party has to revive itself in UP and Bihar,this is the right time to start finding our feet,” said a CWC member.

Shift in party’s stance on coalition politics

The CWC’s decision on January 29 this year not to have any national alliance was the first indication of the impending disintegration of the UPA ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. A look at the party’s stance on coalition in the past decade,however,shows that the grand old party had never given up hope about ruling the nation on its own. In September 1998,the Congress stated in its Pachmarhi Declaration that “coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes which will not weaken the party or compromise its basic ideology”. It was the party’s first acknowledgement of the emerging reality of coalition politics. Four years later,after the Mount Abu conclave of Congress chief ministers in November 2002,party president Sonia Gandhi said the Congress did not have a “closed mind” as far as alliances were concerned. “Our main aim is to do all we can to strengthen the Congress so that we come to power on our own. But we don’t have a closed mind to working with like-minded,secular parties if and when necessary,” she said at a function. At the party’s July 2003 Shimla conclave,Sonia Gandhi again spoke of the Congress’s stance on coalition. She said,“Taking into account the present political scenario,the Congress would be prepared to enter into appropriate electoral coalition arrangements with secular parties on the basis of mutual understanding but without compromising on its basic ideologies.” She explained that the party had to think of coalition arrangements to defeat the BJP.

Birth of the UPA

The seeds of what became the 14-party United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were sown by Sonia Gandhi at a dinner party she hosted at 10 Janpath,on February 16,2003,on the eve of the Budget session. Her initiative,ostensibly for floor coordination among Opposition parties over the Ayodhya issue,came even as the Congress was witnessing an intense intra-party debate on the issue of coalition politics. Among those who drove down to her residence were NCP chief Sharad Pawar,who had,until then,not broken bread with her after leaving the party five years ago on the issue of her foreign origin,Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav,RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav,and LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan,among others. After the drubbing in the assembly elections in Rajasthan,Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh towards the end of that year,the Congress made a strong bid to cobble up an alliance with regional parties. The efforts led to the formation of the UPA.

Disintegration of the UPA

The TRS was the first to pull out of the UPA in August 2006 on the issue of a separate Telangana state. In March 2007,the MDMK announced its withdrawal from the UPA government,accusing it of neglecting the interest of Tamil Nadu in inter-state water disputes and of failing to implement many Central schemes in the state. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party,which had fallen out with the Congress over the Amarnath yatra row,formally pulled out of the UPA in January this year after the Congress allied with the National Conference to form the government in the state. The Samajwadi Party,though not a UPA constituent,had supported the government in the July 22 trust vote last year. But the SP,however,parted ways with the Congress after the two failed to arrive at any agreement on seat-sharing in Uttar Pradesh. The disintegration of the UPA intensified this month with the RJD and the LJP cutting a deal to leave out a demanding Congress in seat-sharing arrangements in Bihar. Then the PMK switched sides to align with the AIADMK in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election.

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