Though they parted company around two decades ago, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee have always shared a warm relationship.

It was surprising, therefore, when a furious Banerjee confronted Sonia Gandhi in Parliament last week after the Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary, while speaking in the Lok Sabha, accused the Bengal chief minister of being involved in the Saradha chit fund scam.

While Banerjee said she will not forget this incident and ensure Chowdhary’s defeat in the upcoming election, Sonia Gandhi told her, “We may accuse each other but we are still friends.”

As it happened, just a few hours later, Banerjee shared the stage with Anand Sharma of the Congress at an Opposition protest to “Save the Constitution” at Jantar Mantar. There, she declared she was willing to work with anyone, including the Congress and the Left Front parties, to defeat the Narendra Modi government.

That same day, Banerjee joined Congress chief Rahul Gandhi at a meeting of Opposition leaders at Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar’s home to chalk out their joint strategy for the general election. They decided to form a national pre-poll alliance and frame a common minimum programme. Both Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi, however, clarified that while they will join hands at the national level, they will compete with each other in West Bengal.

This underlines the difficulty of coming together on a national platform for disparate political formations that are locked in turf wars with each other in the states. It also offers a measure of the compulsions that are driving them to sink their differences and fight as allies.

Now that the Bharatiya Janata Party is established as the central pole of the Indian polity, its rivals are left with no option but to band together despite their state-level rivalries. It is simply a matter of survival for each of them.

Choosing where to fight

Some Opposition leaders had proposed that instead of a grand national alliance, it would be more effective to have state-level electoral pacts and form a coalition after the election. All parties favoured this arrangement since it did away with the necessity of declaring a prime ministerial candidate, a sensitive issue given the long line of contenders for the job. Specifically, the regional parties were wary of Rahul Gandhi emerging as the face of the alliance for the simple reason that the Congress is a pan-India party and, therefore, the natural anchor for an anti-BJP coalition.

They also argued that forming a national alliance would, much to the BJP’s delight, cast the election as a “Rahul versus Modi” fight. This would hand a big advantage to the saffron party as the prime minister’s ratings are much higher than the Congress president’s. Additionally, the BJP would have an opportunity to pin down the entire Opposition on a single issue.

Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Farooq Abdullah and Sharad Pawar attend the 'Save the Constitution' rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo credit: AAP/Twitter
Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Farooq Abdullah and Sharad Pawar attend the 'Save the Constitution' rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo credit: AAP/Twitter

In contrast, by allying at the state-level, the Opposition could compel the BJP to fight regional parties on various issues and on their home turf. The saffron party is happiest attacking the Congress since it does not like alienating regional parties which are seen as potential allies given their ideological flexibility.

However, the Opposition was forced to rethink this strategy after most opinion polls predicted a hung Lok Sabha. In case of a split verdict, the President might have to first invite to form the government the pre-poll alliance with the most seats.

India’s President enjoys immense discretionary powers to decide who should be called to form the government when there is a fractured mandate. Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1996 after the BJP emerged as the single largest party. More recently, BJP leader BS Yedyurappa was given the first shot at power in Karnataka for the same reason. In both instances, the leaders were forced to resign after failing to muster enough support to win the confidence vote.

Today, it is widely contended that the invitation should first go to the largest pre-poll alliance or the party which can show the requisite numbers to lead a stable government. If the President goes by this rule, the Opposition could lose out by going for a post-poll alliance rather than a pre-poll arrangement.

While the Opposition’s reason for reviewing the decision against a national coalition is evident, there is no clarity about how its constituent parties will resolve their differences in the states to project a stable and viable alternative to the BJP.

Getting their act together

So far, only the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, arch rivals in Uttar Pradesh, have managed to settle their differences. After they refused to add the Congress to their alliance, however, Rahul Gandhi roped in his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with the express aim of reviving the grand old party in the electorally prized Hindi heartland state. The move has only caused confusion in the Opposition camp since no one can predict her electoral impact. The jury is out on whether she will end up helping the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine, or the BJP.

The Mamata Banerjee-Sonia Gandhi spat too was a product of the rivalry between their parties in Bengal. Having been decimated by the Trinamool, the Bengal Congress is averse to doing business with Banerjee’s party. This rivalry was bound to cast a shadow on their relationship nationally – and it has, as the spat showed.

The Left parties, which the Trinamool ousted from power in Bengal, are in a similarly uncomfortable position. Their leaders could not so much as share a stage with the Trinamool chief at the Jantar Mantar protest; Sitaram Yechury and D Raja made sure to leave before Banerjee arrived.

Once firmly on the opposite sides of the political divide in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party briefly came together during last year’s Telangana Assembly election, but failed to make a mark. They have now decided to contest the upcoming election separately but Rahul Gandhi and Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu are working in tandem in Delhi. This sends confusing signals to their respective state cadres who would find it difficult to battle each other in this backdrop.

In Delhi, the gulf between the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party has not been bridged despite mounting pressure from other regional parties that they forget the past and pool their resources to oust the BJP. But the Congress is unwilling to concede Kejriwal’s demand for seats in Haryana and Punjab in exchange for a partnership in Delhi.

This is not a new situation. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was beset with similar problems as the partners constantly sought to assert themselves at the Centre to protect their state turfs. As chairperson of the alliance, Sonia Gandhi was kept busy placating the demanding regional allies. In the proposed new alliance, Naidu or Pawar may be called upon to take on this role given their seniority and experience.

The question though is whether the Opposition parties can resolve their differences in a manner that would allow them to compete with the BJP’s superior organisational machine and Modi’s ability to turn an election around. It is a tough task indeed.

Also read:

Left out of SP-BSP alliance in UP, can Congress make itself count by targeting BJP’s Brahmin vote?

As Congress fights for survival in Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, BJP stands to gain