It isn’t clear why, but the Congress is getting just that little bit aggressive in its dealings with its coalition partners. And that might not be very good news for the current dispensation as it gears up to fight incumbency for a fresh term at the Centre in a couple of months.
At the centre of the new thinking in the party is the understanding that its main allies are now in a position of weakness and can be pushed hard in pre-election negotiations. There also seems to be a sense that the Congress does not want a national pre-election alliance — it had said earlier that it would not contest the elections on the basis of a common manifesto — preferring state-level tie-ups negotiated bilaterally.
Specifically, the party is preparing to bargain hard with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh.
Going down the list, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) apparently felt that RJD boss Lalu Prasad Yadav’s political career, hit by the CBI inquiry into the fodder scam and the loss of power in Bihar, had been given a fresh lease of life by his association with the Congress and the UPA government at the Centre.
The DMK, it felt, was facing anti-incumbency and was on a weak wicket in a state widely known for the politics of alternation. As far as Uttar Pradesh was concerned, the CWC felt that since the state was historically the cradle of the party (apart, of course, from being electorally the most significant state) a humiliating deal with the Samajwadi Party — which has offered the Grand Old Party only 15 seats — would undermine the party further.
The Congress’s assessment of the weaknesses of its allies on home turf may not be completely off the mark — it is true that the DMK faces a tricky situation as does the RJD. Clearly, too, in Uttar Pradesh the Samajwadi Party will need all the allies it can get its hands on to take on the BSP.
But, unfortunately, the party’s assessment of its own strength is way off base. What contribution does it think it can make to shore up the DMK’s prospects in Tamil Nadu — realistically, zilch. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the severe attenuation of the party’s organisational structure and support base means that it will always be a junior partner in any electoral enterprise there.
The Congress should recognise this and approach the alliance-building exercise with a more pragmatic spirit of give and take. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, in fact, to build a nationwide coalition to begin with — that is, before the elections — rather than adopt a piecemeal, region-specific strategy to be followed by another post-election exercise.
The Congress’s delusions of grandeur don’t necessarily have to be delusions in the long term. But if it is serious about being a key player, adding value to regional allies, it has to embark on a process of intensive rebuilding, especially in the Hindi heartland, where it has been all but destroyed.
Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh contribute 179 seats to the Lok Sabha — almost a third of its strength. And in vast swathes of these states the Congress by itself is non-existent, especially in the first four.
The process of rebuilding through a mass contact programme should have started after the Pachmarhi session in the late 1990s when Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party — but it didn’t happen. So, to give substance to its stated ambitions, the Congress must start rebuilding now — that is, pronto. If the UPA returns to power, the party will have five years to get its show on the road.
(Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based freelance writer)