A simple photo-op can sometimes reveal the entire political picture. Last month, as Rahul Gandhi hosted an iftaar party, his high table did not include a single opposition party chieftain: most of them chose to send their representatives instead while the Samajawadi party gave the event a miss altogether. The message was clear: most opposition parties do not see the Congress as a first among equals, even less so Mr Gandhi as an unquestioned magnet for opposition unity.
To an extent, the Congress appears to have realized the direction in which the wind is blowing. The manner in which the Congress leadership has bent over backwards to accommodate HD Kumaraswamy and the JD (S) in government formation in Karnataka is a pointer to the future. By virtually agreeing to every demand of the smaller party, the Congress has revealed an intent to preserve the alliance government at all costs, atleast till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This is, in a sense, a ‘new’ Congress, far removed from the imperious party of a previous era. The Congress has on three previous occasions supported a coalition government from the outside at the Centre, each time pulling the plug at its convenience. The short-lived experiments with Charan Singh (1979), Chandrashekhar (1991) and Deve Gowda-IK Gujral (1996-98) are proof that the Congress could not be trusted to be a reliable ally, its hunger for power an over-riding objective. The standing joke in Delhi then was that even in the opposition, the Congress saw itself as the natural ruling party.
That pre-eminent position as the country’s dominant political force is now gone, and with it perhaps the arrogance that comes with decades of supremacy. The Congress under a re-minted and more accommodating Rahul Gandhi appears to be slowly accepting that it cannot dictate terms to any party in the country, and that for its very survival, it must now be ready to compromise and cede political space to potential adversaries. The JD (S) in Karnataka is only one example: the two parties, after all, have been arch-enemies in the southern Karnataka region. Now, it appears that the Congress maybe willing to accept that its writ in UP doesn’t extend beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli belt and be ready for a ‘C’ team role to the SP-BSP alliance in the state; it is already a junior partner to the RJD in Bihar, is conceding ground to Sharad Pawar’s NCP in Maharashtra and may even be ready for a tie up with seemingly ‘small’ players like a Ajit Jogi in Chattisgarh and a Badruddin Ajmal in Assam.
This strategy of short-term strategic alliances is so very different to the original goal which Rahul Gandhi had set for the Congress’s resurgence just a few years ago. Then, the narrative was of how the Congress was determined to challenge the regional and ‘caste-based’ forces who were accused of dividing society around narrow sectional interests. In UP in particular, the Rahul vision for the Congress was for a revival of the party in its original bastion by building its organizational base independent of any alliances. That long term struggle has been abandoned for a pragmatic outlook where the Congress has realized that it cannot hope to confront the ruling BJP without reaching out to the very regional parties it once shunned.
Undoubtedly, it is the near-hegemonical position which the BJP has acquired since under Narendra Modi that is shaping the Congress strategy. As the BJP’s rapid ascent has shown, the Congress’s fortresses were fragile and could be easily breached. The Congress might have hoped that the regional batallions could be defeated over time but with the BJP, the party was dealing with a nationwide army the sheer size of which even an Indira Gandhi might have been intimidated by. A regional force can be seen as a transient local challenger but the BJP has usurped the entire kingdom that the Congress once thought was its own. Another five years of Modi Raj, and the Congress may well face even more desertions from its bedraggled army.
But in this quest for immediate survival in 2019, the Congress will now have to ask itself just how far it will go to accommodate potential competitors. Will the Congress, for example, be ready to ally with a Mamata Banerjee, the one woman show who the party tried to topple unsuccessfully just two years ago by tieing up with the Left in Bengal? Would the Congress ever reach out to either of the two warring Andhra potentates, Chandrababu Naidu or a Jagan Reddy, both of whom like Mamata started their political careers in the Congress? Or in Telangana to a K Chandrashekar Rao, also a one-time Congressman, but now its prime rival in the state? And would the party be ready to swallow its self-respect and even do a deal with Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP in Delhi and Punjab despite the fact that it was Kejriwal’s agitation in 2011 that ignited the rebellion against Congress rule?
Each of these potential alliances carries with it a huge risk and a probability of a further erosion in the Congress’s shrinking base. For example, a nationwide tie-up with Mayawati’s BSP could mean an end to the Congress’s attempt to restore its Dalit vote bank while a reach-out to Mamata would only firmly establish the BJP as Didi’s main challenger in Bengal. Kejriwal too, is a competitor for the same urban poor vote that the Congress is hoping to get back one day while any arrangement with the Andhra satraps could further push the Congress into the dark hole it finds itself in a region that it was dominating just five years ago.
In the final analysis, the Congress may have to forsake its long-term health for short term resuscitation. When the patient is in coma, as the Congress is today, it needs an emergency operation. Arithmetic alone must convince the Congress that it has no option now but to swallow its pride and strike deals. In the 2014 general elections, the Congress won just 44 seats and was second in another 224 constituencies. Effectively, the Congress is in the fight in less than half the country. With its kingdom downsized, the once mighty Congress may have no choice then but to conserve its resources and fight in just about 270 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. A scaling down of ambition may just be its last lifeline in its darkest hour.
Post-script: The Congress’s iftaar party was held three months after Sonia Gandhi had expressed her concern that the party was perceived as ‘pro-Muslim’. By hosting the traditional iftaar after a gap of two years, the Congress may finally have realized that in a multi-faith society it has no reason to be apologetic about its ‘minority’ image, and being ‘pro-minority’ doesn’t make you ‘anti-majority’. Maybe, an iftaar can be followed by celebrating Diwali Milan with the same fervor?