Over the past few weeks I have had a lot of Congressmen ask me worriedly what chances their party stood in the coming assembly elections if it were to go it alone, without the crutches of an ally to lean on as it has done for nearly half a generation or more.
Most of these youngsters have forgotten how bitterly their old-time leaders had fought against the party leadership’s decision then to ally with various formations. In the late 1980s even Rajiv Gandhi was vehemently opposed by a section of his party on this score in the wake of the Ayodhya agitation. I recall one Congressman then telling me that allying with any political party was the surest way to destroy their bases — as it happened in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where ‘like-minded’ parties took over from the Congress, which then became a mere cipher in these states forever.
Now a generation later with the ‘politics of alliance’ having taken over practically every political formation in the country, Congressmen who do not remember the earlier times are worried about the various rats deserting their sinking ship — and it is happening across the board, within the party as well as among the allies. The latest in this long line of deserters is the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, of course, but closer home, in Maharashtra, last week we had Datta Meghe and his son, Sagar, who won a Congress primary in Wardha and later lost that ‘safe’ Lok Sabha seat, joining the BJP.
I was, however, not surprised for the Meghes are among that lot who will always ensure that both sides of their bread remain buttered. I recall Meghe Senior once telling me in the late 1990s, “I do not care who becomes prime minister. I just want to remain an MP.”
That was the era when minority governments were the norm and the nation was seeing elections every other year. Meghe even deserted his mentor Sharad Pawar for the Congress some years ago when he realised that he could never win an election on an NCP ticket from Vidarbha. So, of course, he would switch to the BJP now that the latter’s star is in the ascendant.
However, it is not Meghe and the likes of him that worry these Congressmen. They believe Pawar is planning to contest all the 288 assembly seats from Maharashtra and to make a victory possible he is said to be attempting to isolate the Congress. Pawar is making overtures to all other parties, including the Bahujan Samaj Party and Raj Thackeray’s MNS, to maximise his gains in these elections.
That, however, could really be a blessing in disguise for the Congress, particularly with the likes of Narayan Rane chafing at the bit and the party being forced to work out a compromise solution to keep him within the fold. Although I personally do not think Rane has any better option than the Congress, the party could do well to utilise his natural aggression to greater effect against a buoyant opposition as their campaign manager or state party chief. If Pawar truly plans to ditch the Congress at the eleventh hour, Rane could be the perfect man to take on the Maratha strongman. However, this might not go down too well in case Pawar decides to keep his alliance with the Congress for the moment.
Though the party might be a sinking ship, Pawar does not have the luxury that Omar Abdullah, Mamata Banerjee or even M Karunanidhi have. All of them have their own raison d’être in their respective states. The NCP still needs the Congress more than the other way round, unless the former wants to be reduced to a rump in these elections.
Nevertheless, allies have done the Congress more harm than good, especially when the party was in power at the Centre for a decade. The Congress could do well to lighten the burden of its allies. Perhaps now is the time for all the good men in the Congress to surface and, well, come to the aid of their own party!