When the Congress’s coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka was sworn in last May, the occasion offered an opportunity for the Opposition parties to showcase their combined strength and convey their readiness to put up a united fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 general election.

The BJP, on the other hand, appeared to be on shaky ground. The party’s troubles deepened when it lost power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in late 2018. Sensing that the BJP was weakened, its allies began talking tough. The Hindutva party, it seemed, was in for a rough few months ahead of the general election.

By winning the three Hindi heartland states, the Congress was seen to have set out on the road to recovery, something that would accelerate the process of alliance-building among Opposition parties.

Nine months later, the roles have been reversed. While the BJP has sealed electoral pacts with its recalcitrant partners, the Congress is having a tough time finalising alliances. Despite publicly declaring that its main objective is to defeat the BJP, the grand old party is caught in a perennial dilemma: should it agree to cede space to its allies or focus on protecting its turf?

The dilemma goes back to the late 1990s when the Congress’s conclave in Pachmarhi concluded that the era of political alliances was temporary and that “coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes that will not weaken the party or compromise its ideology”.

But realising that their dream of a return to single-party rule was unlikely to come true in a hurry, the Congress top brass, led by Sonia Gandhi, changed tack at the 2003 Shimla conference. They decided to do away with the “ekla chalo” – go it alone – principle and align with “like-minded” parties to fight communal forces (read the BJP). Sonia Gandhi then formed alliances with a range of parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Lok Janshakti Party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Though the alliances yielded 10 years in power for the Congress, the old dilemma resurfaced almost each time the party sat down for seat-sharing negotiations. Today, there is still a vocal section that insists the Congress should not cede any space to regional parties and instead seek to rebuild itself.

“The trouble is regional parties use this opportunity to blackmail us,” said a member of the Congress Working Committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We can’t give in to their pressure tactics. Should we obliterate our party in the process of accommodating our allies?”

For this election, the Congress has finally worked out deals with its allies in Bihar, Karnataka and Jammu Kashmir but the preceding confabulations have sent a message that the party has still not shed its “sense of entitlement” and insists on being recognised as the pivot of the Opposition. Its failure to seal alliances in Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have further confirmed that the Congress is inflexible and has lost sight of the ultimate goal of defeating the BJP.

“Problems arise when the Congress negotiates with a bigger regional party as a junior partner but continues to believe that as a pan-Indian party it is more powerful,” said a senior Congress leader from Bihar.

The BJP, he added, had an easier time finalising alliances as it was negotiating from a position of strength. “In most cases, the BJP was dealing with smaller parties,” he pointed out.

Opposition leaders at Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy's swearing-in ceremony in May 2018. Photo credit: PTI

No decisive leadership

The Congress has been roundly criticised for failing to strike an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh to ensure a strong Opposition challenge to the BJP in the electorally crucial state. The Congress is being blamed for alienating Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati by refusing to ally with her party in last year’s Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.

While Congress leaders say it is unfair to blame them because theirs is the “bigger party”, the fact remains that the party became overconfident after winning the three Hindi states and demanded more seats in Uttar Pradesh than the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party thought reasonable.

After being left out of the alliance, the Congress decided to contest all 80 of Uttar Pradesh’s seats and brought in Priyanka Gandhi as a star campaigner. It is no more than an act of bravado, however. The party’s state leaders privately admit that they don’t even have strong candidates for all constituencies. “We should have focused on 10-15 seats,” said a state leader who asked not to be identified.

On the flip side, Mayawati has always been wary of the Congress, considering it a threat to her Dalit support base. Moreover, she apparently believes allying with the Congress does not help her since the grand old party cannot transfer its votes to the Bahujan Samaj Party. This was indeed the case when the two parties joined hands in 1996, only to lose to the Samajwadi Party.

“Maybe it is not fair to blame the Congress but it would have helped if Rahul Gandhi had walked the extra mile to work out a compromise in both Uttar Pradesh and Delhi,” said Zoya Hasan, former political science professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “After all, this election is very important, much more than the 1977 election.”

A senior Congress leader who would only speak anonymously agreed. They pointed out that Rahul Gandhi could have displayed decisive leadership in forging alliances. Instead, in Bengal, for one, the negotiations were left to MP Gaurav Gogoi, who is too junior to handle such an assignment. Involving senior leader Pradeep Bhattacharya was also a mistake though, they added, since he is not a skillful negotiator and belongs to the old guard that believes the Congress should not cede space to its partners. The negotiations eventually broke down, with the Congress and the Left Front declaring they will go it alone, thus setting up a four-cornered contest with the Trinamool Congress and the BJP.

Similarly, negotiations with the Aam Aadmi Party failed because the Delhi Congress was vehemently opposed to allying with Arvind Kejriwal’s party.

But the party’s state units have a self-interest in opposing alliances with regional parties, senior Congress leaders pointed out, and it is up to the central leadership to lay down the ground rules and ensure everyone falls in line. “Instead of leaving it to the state units or junior leaders, Rahul Gandhi should have personally intervened in finalising alliances,” said the Working Committee member. “Look at the BJP. Its president Amit Shah was at the forefront sealing deals with partners.”

Also read: Lesson from 1979 Janata Party fiasco: Coalitions are sunk by national parties not regional ones

As Congress and CPI(M) fail to secure an alliance in Bengal, it’s advantage BJP and Trinamool