The Congress seems to have made a decision. Its political resolution at the start of the year said the party would follow a “pragmatic approach” when dealing with potential allies. But it was the results in Karnataka in May, and the bye-polls in Uttar Pradesh this year, that seem to have cinched it. From here on, with Lok Sabha elections expected by May 2019, the party that once dominated the country will hope to be a convenor of a grand coalition that seeks to oust the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The wheels have been set in motion in a number of states:
- In Karnataka the Congress has already announced that its post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), which helped it come to power despite the BJP winning more seats, will be a pre-poll alliance ahead of 2019.
- In Maharashtra, an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party was hammered out in February.
- In Uttar Pradesh, the lead is being set by the two dominant state parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, but the Congress has been involved in the discussions.
- In Bihar, the mahagathbandan or grand alliance may no longer exist, but the Congress alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal remains steadfast, and there are murmurs about Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) drifting away from the BJP.
- This week there were indications that the Congress will tie up with the Bahujan Samaj Party in Madhya Pradesh, and possibly Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are slated to have Assembly polls before next year’s Lok Sabha elections.
- There was even word of a Congress alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, though this has been denied for the moment.
The Karnataka example
The Congress has traditionally been seen as an arrogant party, one that refuses to openly cede space to regional outfits, even if they are more dominant in their states. But it is hard to maintain arrogance when your party has just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and has been reduced to less than a handful of state governments, even as the BJP picks up states left and right.
Despite the situation the Congress is in, it seemed like the party would still need some convincing that it ought to give more space to regional players. The Karnataka result, in which the Congress’ decision to offer unconditional support to the Janata Dal (Secular)’s HD Kumaraswamy even though his party had won fewer seats, seems to have done the job. Now the Congress wants to replicate the formula all over the place.
Many see this as the best way to beat what appears to be a dominant BJP, especially since, despite a patchy four-year record, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains popular. The thinking is that the BJP has grown to be so powerful that it will not be affected by anti-incumbency or smaller groups voting for different politics unless all of the anti-BJP votes are brought onto one plank.
The success of the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party combination in two bye-polls in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year suggested that this could be done. A repeat of that performance, this time involving the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, last week in another Uttar Pradesh bye-poll confirmed that arithmetic could indeed be used to defeat the BJP.
The Congress’ actions in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will be closely watched, not just because these states have elections coming up this year but also because – when coupled with Uttar Pradesh – they form part of the big saffron swathe that seemed to be won almost entirely by the BJP in the 2014 general elections. If alliance arithmetic makes a significant dent to BJP numbers here, it will be hard for Modi to come even close to replicating his 2014 performance.
But there are two potential pitfalls here:
- A number of Congress state units already have their own internal factions to deal with. Adding external players into the mix, and letting them take the lead in some elections, might end up exacerbating the infighting and leading to a more muddled campaign. For example, though the Congress did lose a number of seats in Karnataka, it still won many more in the state. Yet, it seems to be letting the much smaller Janata Dal (Secular) take the lead. Congress leaders in the state are inevitably going to be unhappy about this. Will the Congress national leadership be able to strike the right balance while also selling the idea that such compromises are needed if 2019 is to be won?
- As Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav argues, the sight of so many parties coming together to beat the BJP might be turned into a narrative advantage for Modi – who can argue that they are doing everything possible to keep him out. Moreover, “everyone aligning against the BJP could actually expand the support base of the BJP in the long run”. Such alliances are, at best, stopgap solutions that cannot take the place of a genuine strategy of building up local units, and in fact, it is this approach that has in the past led to the Congress ceding space to others.
Even though there are drawbacks, however, this appears to be the only way the Congress can even hope to keep Modi – if not the BJP itself – out of power in 2019, and so it appears to be picking up the baton and running with it.