Two days after his hug-and-wink act during the debate in the Lok Sabha on a no-trust motion, Rahul Gandhi presided over the first meeting of the party’s newly-constituted working committee. The coming State and parliamentary polls were on the minds of the participants. The main States going to the polls later this year — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarth — there is more or less a direct contest between the ruling BJP and the Congress. But in the parliamentary poll next year, the Congress needs allies to take on the BJP.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram told the CWC that the party has no presence in about 200 Lok Sabha seats. In States such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, etc, Congress is at the mercy of the regional parties. The party is in power in Punjab, which has 13 Lok Sabha seats, and shares power with JD(S) in Karnataka which has 28 LS seats. Despite this, the Congress claims to be a national party. The BJP was quick to dub the Congress ‘a new regional party’. However, shedding its earlier hesitation in recognising its diminished strength, the CWC acknowledged the party has to stitch up alliances to take on the BJP. CWC members emphasised the need for such alliances, with some warning against the party yielding to the potential allies more than required. A number of members argued that the Congress alone can be the anchor of a proposed Mahagathbandhan.
However, the axis of such an all-embracing anti-BJP coalition will not depend on what the Congress believes, but on who gets the maximum seats. This, in turn, will determine the leadership of the proposed coalition. For the record, the CWC endorsed the obvious when it said that should the party win the maximum number of seats in the Opposition coalition, Rahul will lead it. The CWC empowered Rahul to negotiate alliances with the Opposition groups. How he will go about stitching up alliances ahead of the 2019 poll will be watched keenly. Rahul has little experience in this regard, and the one alliance he negotiated in UP with the Samajwadi Party ahead of the last Assembly election fared so poorly that Akhilesh Yadav is in no mind to give Rahul even the time of the day.
In UP again, Mayawati insists on extracting a heavy price for the proposed alliance, saying the Congress must accommodate her in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh if it wants to be given a few seats in UP where she and Akhilesh are teaming up to take on the BJP. Of course, it is not going to be easy, not only due to Rahul’s inexperience and the Congress’s lack of heft at the ground level, but also due to the clear and present chance that Modi might want to take along some of the same groups. Modi in his reply to the no-trust debate last Friday spoke at length about the perfidious conduct of the Congress towards allies, about the misuse of Article 356 to dismiss Opposition governments and the use-and-discard policy pursued by the party leadership in the 70s and 80s. In short, the PM painted the Congress as an untrustworthy ally which is prone to betray them when its cause is served.
Notwithstanding the CWC reposing confidence in Rahul, and his ability to strike new alliances, the challenge is likely to come from various non-NDA leaders. Not many regional chieftains are willing to accept Rahul as a prime ministerial candidate. Mamata Banerjee virtually announced her desire to become PM at a rally in Kolkata on Saturday, undertaking to work for a federal front ahead of the 2019 poll. Mayawati harbours her own ambitions for the top job and is not ready to play second fiddle to Rahul. Akhilesh in his present mood finds no use for the Congress scion. Other regional leaders, too, are not enamoured of the Congress chief, given that he does not add to their own electoral strength. In short, Rahul is important for the members of his own party, others in the Opposition will judge him strictly on his pulling power with the voters. Given that Rahul chose to reduce his role in the debate on the no-trust motion to a scripted hug-and-wink act, which earned him ample media space but little credit for substance and purposeful contribution, he has to work much harder to earn his spurs as a serious politician to be taken seriously by the country.