Why the Congress must change its strategy
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 (SP) 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 realised the direction in which the wind is blowing by bending over backwards to accommodate the JD(S) in government formation in Karnataka. By virtually agreeing to every demand of the smaller party, the Congress has shown an intent to preserve the alliance government at all costs, at least 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, under a reminted 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 may have accepted that its writ in UP doesn’t extend beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli belt and be prepared 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 so-called small players like an Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and a Badruddin Ajmal in Assam.
This plan 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 organisational base independent of any alliances. That long term struggle has been abandoned for a more pragmatic outlook in which the Congress has realised 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 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 battalions could be defeated over time but with the BJP, the party was dealing with a nationwide army. A regional force maybe 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 ranks.
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 tough competitors who have already eroded the party’s base, be it a Mayawati across the country, a Mamata in Bengal or even an Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Punjab. For now it appears 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 for revival. 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 little choice 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 two years, the Congress may finally have realised that in a multi-faith society, it has no reason to be apologetic about its pro-minority image, and being pro-minority doesn’t make you anti-majority. Perhaps an iftaar can be followed by celebrating Diwali Milan with the same fervour.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal