UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati , West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu with Karnataka new chief minister Kumarswamy during his swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru on May 23, 2018.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati , West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu with Karnataka new chief minister Kumarswamy during his swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru on May 23, 2018.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Congress dilemma: Alliances can reduce its clout in states

Congress’ Karnataka experience of coalition with Janata Dal (Secular) has again exposed the fault lines in the grand old party’s strategy when it comes to alliances.
By Aurangzeb Naqshbandi | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 06, 2018 07:31 AM IST

The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) may have resolved their differences over power-sharing in Karnataka and even announced an alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but the Karnataka experience has once again exposed the fault lines in the grand old party’s strategy when it comes to alliances.

After days of intense negotiations, the Congress conceded to the demands of the JD(S) and handed over to it the key portfolios of finance, excise, power and public works department apart from the all-important post of the chief minister. The Congress was willing to make compromises despite having secured more seats than the JD(S). With the victory in RR Nagar, the Congress took its tally to 79 seats in the 224-member Karnataka assembly. The JD(S)-BSP combine won from 38 constituencies while the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats. Congressmen believe their party made the right decision.

“It was a bold step on the part of our leadership. We made the sacrifice in the larger interests of the people who wanted to see a secular and stable government in the state. It is an all inclusive government,” said Karnataka Congress leader Shakir Sanadi.

“Congress-JD(S) is a winning combination and we will definitely sweep the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The main purpose is to oust the BJP from power at the national level in 2019,” he said.

His party colleague Manickam Tagore agrees. “There was also a perception that the Congress has a big brother attitude towards its alliance partners. By offering the lead role to the JD(S), the Congress has shown that unlike the BJP, it treats its allies as equals and even superiors at times,” said Tagore, an AICC secretary.

History shows that Tagore’s comment is accurate, but that it doesn’t always benefit the Congress’s own interests in the long term.

In Bihar, the Congress remained a dominant political force till 1990, when it was ousted from power with the emergence of Mandal (reservation) politics championed by RJD chief Lalu Prasad. It stitched an alliance with the RJD for the first time in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. The accord continued for 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2005 assembly elections as well.

In 1998, the Congress won five seats with a vote share of 7.72%, which slipped to 4.78% in 1999 when it won only four seats. With a vote share of 4.8%, the party won only three seats in 2004.

And when the Congress decided to sing the “Ekla chalo (go it alone)” tune in 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2010 assembly elections, in the state, it had to eat humble pie. The party won just two out of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 polls and only four seats in the 2010 assembly elections.

“Once we agreed to play a junior partner to RJD, the people stopped taking us seriously. At the same time, we have not paid any attention to strengthening our party at the grassroots level or empowering the workers,” senior Congress leader Kishore Kumar Jha said.

“It is sad to see that a party that ruled the state for decades has been reduced to a marginal player,” he added.

In Maharashtra, the Congress struck an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar in 1999 to form a coalition government. Since then, the two parties have been engaged in a battle of one-upmanship.

Despite winning more seats in 1999 and 2004 assembly elections, the NCP conceded the chief minister’s post to the Congress in return for more ministerial berths. But the worry for the Congress has been the ever growing ambition of the NCP to expand its base across the state. After becoming a dominant player in western Maharashtra, Pawar’s party has made deep inroads into the Congress bastion of Vidarbha . It is already on an equal footing in the Khandesh and Marathwada regions.

The two parties parted ways on a bitter note in 2014, resulting in the victory of the BJP in the assembly elections. The Congress won 42 seats in the 288-member assembly and the NCP, 41 with a vote share of 17.95% and 17.24% respectively.

However, they have once again joined the hands. While the Congress lost Palghar Lok Sabha seat, the NCP won from Bhadana-Ghondiya constituency in the May 28 by-elections.

In Jharkhand, too, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has always driven a hard bargain in its dealings with the Congress, its on-off partner in the state. In 2013, the JMM had toppled the BJP-led government and sought the support of the Congress in ruling the state. Though the Congress initially wanted to lead the coalition, it eventually agreed to allow the JMM to do this.

The two parties jointly fought the last Lok Sabha elections but soon parted ways and separately contested the 2014 assembly polls. The Congress could manage to win just 6 seats with its candidates forfeiting their deposit in 42 of the 62 constituencies the party contested . The JMM won 19 seats and the BJP, with 37 went on to form a government with the support of the All Jharkhand Students Union or AJSU Party, which emerged victorious in five constituencies. The Congress and the JMM have now decided to join hands once again to prevent the repeat of 2014.

Still, the Congress has not benefited from staying away from alliances, as its experience in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh indicates. And when it did go for a tie-up with the SP for the first time in 2017, the grand old party registered its worst-ever electoral performance. After being thrown out of power in UP in 1989, the Congress has been relegated to the political margins of the state, behind the BJP, SP, and the BSP.

However, Congress leaders cite the vote share of different parties to pitch for a Bihar-style grand alliance in UP in future elections. In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share stood at 39.7%, the BSP’s was 22.2%, SP 21.8% while the Congress got 6.2%. The combined vote share of the three non-BJP parties added up to 50.2%.

Political observers view the Congress strategy as one in keeping with its so-called Shimla formula of cultivating partners and alliances. “Federal coalitions involve granting political space to partners at the state level. It is a wise political strategy provided the favour is returned at the national level,” said Delhi-based political analyst Balveer Arora.

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