As Opposition parties get down to forging partnerships for the upcoming general election, pressure is building on the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party to sink their differences and form an alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi.
According to senior officials in both parties, Chief Ministers Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal have urged Congress president Rahul Gandhi and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal not to let the past come in the way if they are serious about unseating the Narendra Modi government. A triangular contest would only benefit the BJP, which won all seven of Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats in 2014, Naidu and Banerjee have cautioned. Naidu leads the Telugu Desam Party and Banerjee is head of the Trinamool Congress. Both are arrayed against the BJP.
Gandhi and Kejriwal are said to be weighing the option but any decision is likely to come only after a month. Congress veterans Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and PC Chacko are learnt to have advised Gandhi that the party should strike a deal with AAP.
The Congress and AAP entered into a coalition after the 2013 Delhi election threw up a hung Assembly, but their government fell in less than two months. A year later, in February 2015, AAP returned with a crushing majority, taking 67 of the 70 Assembly seats. The Congress did not win even one. Since then, relations between the two parties had been frosty.
That appeared to have changed after Gandhi and Kejriwal shared the stage at the farmers’ rally in Delhi in November. Subsequently, Kejriwal attended a meeting of Opposition leaders on the eve of Parliament’s Winter Session. His party’s national council had earlier indicated willingness to join a united front against the BJP.
Kejriwal is said to believe that AAP does not need the Congress’s help to retain power in the next Assembly election. If anything, a weak Congress suits him since it is at the expense of the grand old party that AAP has expanded in Delhi.
However, Kejriwal nurses national ambitions and allying with the Congress for the general election would help him acquire a larger profile. In return for a partnership in Delhi, he could ask the Congress for a meatier share of Lok Sabha seats in Punjab and Haryana. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has ruled out the need for such a partnership, reasoning that Kejriwal’s party is weakened from infighting and an alliance with the Congress would end up reviving it. Whether Singh would still oppose such a deal if it is sanctioned by Gandhi remains to be seen.
Going in a new direction?
In Delhi, on the other hand, the possibility of an alliance has brightened with the appointment of former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as president of the Congress’ state unit. Indeed, the move is being seen as an indication from Gandhi that he is amenable to joining hands with AAP.
Dikshit’s predecessor, Ajay Maken, who quit on health grounds, was strongly opposed to allying with AAP. In a series of recent interviews, Dikshit too spoke against such an arrangement but Congress officials maintained that she is not really averse to striking a deal with Kejriwal. Her son and former MP Sandeep Dikshit, who works in the development sector now, is friendly with the Delhi chief minister. Dikshit’s public remarks reflect the sentiment of the Delhi Congress, which is not in favour of tying up with AAP. Having been appointed leader just a week ago, Congress leaders pointed out, Dikshit has to ensure her statements do not demoralise the party’s workers.
As it is, the former chief minister has her task cut out. She has taken charge of the Delhi Congress when it is in a shambles organisationally, having been reduced to a marginal player in a state it ruled for 15 years until 2013. The party won only eight seats in the 2013 election and was wiped out in 2015. The cadre are understandably dispirited.
Dikshit’s mandate is clear: boost the morale of the cadre and revive the party in Delhi. But questions are being raised whether Dikshit, now 80, can deliver. She did lead the Congress to three straight Assembly election victories but there is no denying the party’s organisation was destroyed under her watch and she failed to groom a second rung of leadership. That the party had to bring her back only serves to prove this point.
That Delhi Congress leaders generally oppose an alliance with AAP is not hard to understand. They know that AAP has usurped their social base of minorities, Scheduled Castes and a major section of the middle class. As a result, the party is a pale shadow of its old self, with no representation in the Assembly or the Lok Sabha. Its performance in the 2017 municipal elections was equally dismal.
The Delhi leaders contend that the party must go it alone in the upcoming election as well as the 2020 Assembly polls to stand any chance of regaining its lost social base. Trying to piggyback on the AAP, they point out, will only serve to weaken the grand old party further. They cite the party’s experiences in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where the emergence of a third force invariably spelt the death knell for the Congress.
Moreover, the Congress’s Delhi unit is upset with the Kejriwal government for apparently demanding that Rajiv Gandhi’s Bharat Ratna be withdrawn for his alleged role in the 1984 Sikh massacre.