The outcome of the Karnataka Assembly polls scheduled for May 12 is not only crucial for Congress president Rahul Gandhi personally, but will also have an impact on the contours of alliances being planned by Opposition parties to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

While former Congress president and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi has held several meetings over the past year to rally together Opposition parties, regional parties have, of late, shown a preference to strike out on their own.

The idea of an anti-BJP, anti-Congress alliance or a federal front was first mooted by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and has subsequently been actively pursued by his West Bengal counterpart and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee.

The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which demonstrated their combined strength by defeating the BJP in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-elections in March, are equally hesitant to include the Congress in their plans. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar nurses prime ministerial ambitions, though his party has no choice but to renew its alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra.

Of these parties, the Trinamool Congress is particularly disinclined to accept Rahul Gandhi as the leader of an Opposition alliance. Though the two leaders led a combined attack against the Narendra Modi government following its decision to demonetise high-value currency notes in November 2016 and even addressed a joint press conference on this subject, Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi have failed to build on this relationship. Banerjee is said to be convinced the Congress president prefers a partnership with the Left parties as he shares a good rapport with Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, which is a complete no-no as far as the West Bengal chief minister is concerned.

Bargaining power against allies

In this backdrop, it has become vital for Rahul Gandhi to defeat the BJP in Karnataka. “If the Congress wins Karnataka, it will force other Opposition parties to take Rahul Gandhi more seriously,” said a former Congress minister who did not want to be identified. “It will also strengthen our party’s claim to play a lead role in the anti-BJP front being discussed.” Other Congress leaders agreed that a Karnataka victory will improve the party’s bargaining position vis-à-vis its allies, who might otherwise be reluctant to do business with it or treat it as a junior partner in seat-sharing negotiations.

A win will put the Congress in a stronger position to fend off demanding allies who will necessarily expect a reciprocal gesture for accommodating the grand old party in states where they are in a position of strength. The Congress is generally reluctant to do so on the plea that the demands of the regional parties are not justified. For instance, it was unable to forge an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party in the Gujarat Assembly polls in December because it felt the number of seats demanded by Pawar’s party was not commensurate with its presence in the state. A Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance for the Tripura Assembly polls in February also failed to materialise for the same reason.

While Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is the Congress’ chief campaigner and strategist for the state elections, a defeat will be put down to Rahul Gandhi’s poor leadership and political immaturity. (Credit: PTI)

‘Rahul Gandhi’s future at stake’

The Karnataka polls have assumed significance for several other reasons too. Since it is the first election being led by Rahul Gandhi after he took over as party president in December, it has become imperative for the Congress to retain the state. Karnataka is the only major state it currently rules and a defeat would further reduce its footprint. Having been reduced to a paltry 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2014 elections, the Congress has steadily lost ground across the country, including in the North East that was once its bastion. In contrast, an aggressive BJP has won virtually every Assembly election (with the exception of Punjab) since it came to power in 2014.

And though Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is the Congress’ chief campaigner and strategist in Karnataka, a defeat will be put down to Rahul Gandhi’s poor leadership and political immaturity.

On the other hand, a victory will enhance Rahul Gandhi’s public image and strengthen his position in the party. Though there is no challenge to his leadership, there are still skeptics in the Congress who are not confident that he has what it takes to lead the party to electoral victory or emerge as a serious challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Undoubtedly, the Congress’ improved performance in Gujarat – where it won 77 seats and restricted the BJP to double digits – and its victory in the bye-elections in Rajasthan in February have helped redeem Rahul Gandhi’s image, but he has to win elections to be taken seriously by his own cadre. “The Karnataka election is critical for Rahul Gandhi… he has to prove that he can win elections for the party,” said a senior Congress leader. “More than the Congress, it is Rahul Gandhi’s personal future which is at stake here.”

Party morale

A win in Karnataka will also be a huge morale-booster for Congress workers and give a big push to the party campaign in year-end elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress is pitched directly against the BJP. More importantly, these elections will set the stage for the 2019 general elections and send out a message that the BJP is not invincible. “These results will set the ball rolling for the coming general election in which the Congress is bound to improve its position,” said former Congress minister Jitin Prasada.