The rumblings of Mahagathbandhan is taking twists & turns. Though anti-Modism is the common glue that brings them together occasionally, the internal contradictions do not sustain that euphoria. It is interesting to review the internal equations and the possible implications for national politics
Between Kolkata and Bengaluru, the aerial distance is only 1,560 km or 2 hours and 35 minutes in flight. But between the Opposition’s latest show in West Bengal’s capital on January 19 and their first parade on May 23 last year, chemistry and distance between them have changed more than ever before.
Opposition leaders at TMC led 'United India' rally in Kolkata, West Bengal
Of course, they remain united in their hope (masked as resolve) to see that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are away from any serious reckoning for power after the 2019 polls.
But, beyond their wishful thoughts, there is little to show any unity in terms of strategy or willingness to overcome their ambitions to pursue a larger goal of a BJP-mukt sarkar.
Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao presenting a memento to his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik
In May 2018, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi rubbed shoulders with Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu, Sitaram Yechury and the like at the initiative of former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda on the portico of the imposing Vidhan Soudha when H D Kumaraswamy was sworn in as a surprise Chief Minister of Karnataka in a post-poll gatbandhan (alliance) involving the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) after a bitterly fought assembly polls—just to prevent the BJP, the single largest party, from forming the government. Apparently, Yechury managed to convince Sonia and Rahul of this tie-up. Deve Gowda, who still hopes for a second stint in the Capital’s South Block, went along. The event was high on symbolism. The swearing-in ceremony was the first joint public appearance by many bitter rivals-turned-possible allies.
NCP president Sharad pawar (R) with Sonia Gandhi
Cut to February 2019, it is for everyone to see how the alliance has fared today. A restless Congress leader Siddaramaiah won’t let the arrangement go on until it collapses and he is re-installed in office either by fresh polls or re-configuration of MLAs while an equally ambitious D K Shivakumar is helpless in the game of one-upmanship with the former. A hapless Kumaraswamy is ready to pack up only if his father, Deve Gowda, let him do so. The scenes of Congress MLAs being herded to resorts and attacking each other are just a side-show.
On January 13, when Mamata sought to re-create another assemblage of Opposition leaders standing encase, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not think that their presence would do them any good and sent an elderly Mallikarjun Kharge.
Mamata seated Sharad Pawar next to her while DMK chief M K Stalin dare not repeat what he had asserted in the Kolkata Maidan what he had wanted boldly announced in Chennai in the Congress chief’s august presence a few days ago: declare Rahul Gandhi as the Opposition candidate for the PM’s post!
Mamata’s purpose was limited to show the people of Bengal or Bangla as she would love to call that they had the last chance in her to send a PM to Delhi.
Between May 2018 and January-end, we heard the poll bugle for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. On January 13, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati announced that her party and the Samajwadi Party (SP) would fight together in an alliance to stop the BJP from coming to power again.
Describing the ‘mega’ alliance as a “new political revolution”, Mayawati said it would rob Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah of their sleep. Shutting the doors on the Congress, the two parties said they would contest 38 seats each in Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 parliamentary constituencies, leaving Rae Bareli and Amethi for the Congress. However, both the leaders made it clear that the Congress was “not part of the alliance.” "It is because of the policies of the Congress that parties like ours came into existence. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP that comes to power, it's the same thing. There is not much benefit to us from tying up with the Congress,” declared Mayawati.
Rahul Gandhi chose to respond the only way he could: rope in his sister Priyanka Vadra Gandhi (as spelt out by the AICC in its press release) as Congress general secretary for a newly carved charge of “Eastern UP.” Rahul’s messaging was unambiguous for Mayawati and Akhilesh: you ignored us, and now we will make the fight between us real! An angry Mayawati did not react immediately but subsequently went on to attack the Congress chief for floating such ideas like the guaranteed minimum income.
That brings us to why these leaders cannot stand the Congress if it wants to emerge as an alternative to the BJP and what’s cooking on their minds. Whether it is Mayawati, Mamata, K Chandrasekhar Rao, Naveen Patnaik (who has assiduously kept away from every opposition meet) and even Chandrababu Naidu (who was the last to tell Rahul that it’s better for the TDP and the Congress to fight the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls separately in Andhra Pradesh), they prefer a weakened Congress and not an assertive one.
Mayawati, Akhilesh and Congress: Mayawati does not mince words in describing the Congress as much an “evil” and no different from the BJP when it comes to the existential threat it poses to the BSP. Akhilesh Yadav, who is battling to revive the relevance of the Samajwadi Party torn by intra-family rivalries, wishes to ride piggyback on the BSP until such a time he can gain enough strength to think of the Congress as an alternative to fight off the BJP. Mayawati cannot afford to befriend the Congress as she fears her Dalit voter base could shift to its side while the Congress supporters won’t support her.
Mamata, Congress and Left: Mamata dreams of a scenario that Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi can never accept: Congress backing her as PM candidate. Last November, when Mamata sought to convey to Sonia that Rahul or any Congress leader was not acceptable to other opposition parties, Sonia did not mince words in conveying to her that while they wanted the BJP out of power but it would not be at the cost of her son’s standing as Congress chief and other parties would have to accept it. A crestfallen Mamata realised that it was better to re-group the regional parties as a pressure group to force the Congress to support them if the polls threw up a hung parliament.
K Chandrasekhar Rao and Naveen Patnaik: After vanquishing his principal rival — the Congress— in the Telangana Assembly polls, KCR is convinced that he would do his best to prevent the Congress from gaining the upper hand at the Centre. He won’t do anything with the BJP before the parliamentary polls. But if he were to choose between a BJP-led government and a Congress-run one, KCR knows he cannot back the Congress. Similarly, Naveen Patnaik faces the twin-threat of the BJP and the Congress seeking to end his uninterrupted rule in Odisha from 1999. The Congress remains his principal rival. The BJP is getting ambitious but still to find ways to demolish his Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Post-Lok Sabha polls, Naveen would prefer BJP rather than the Congress as the BJD’s support is still largely anti-Congress.
Chandrababu Naidu is a leader who has shifted sides so often that he remains any ally’s ‘unreliable’ ally. He has shocked Rahul Gandhi by making it clear that the two parties will have to go separately in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Of late, there has been some bonding between Naidu and Rahul Gandhi at the national level and the former has been counting on the regional leader’s clout in wooing other Opposition parties to his side. Naidu went to Delhi recently to inform Rahul of his decision to go it alone in AP.
The Congress was expecting a pre-poll alliance with TDP in Andhra, which accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats and 175 MLAs.
In fact, the Congress and TDP contested together along with two other parties—the Telangana Jana Samithi and CPI—in the “Mahakutami” (grand alliance) in Telangana two months ago but failed miserably. At the time of the Telangana Assembly elections, the Congress proposed to Naidu to continue with an alliance in Andhra, too, and the latter agreed to examine it.
However, the subsequent developments like the defeat in Telangana and the decision of BSP chief Mayawati and SP supremo Akhilesh Yadav to exclude Congress from their alliance in Uttar Pradesh have made an impact on Naidu who changed his mind and decided to say no to Rahul. Initially, Congress wanted to ask for eight MPs and 25 to 30 MLAs in AP.
Sharad Pawar, M K Stalin and Congress: After securing a pact with the Congress on contesting 40 of the 48 seats from Maharashtra together, NCP leader Sharad Pawar has no problem with the Congress, but his options remain open in the post-poll scenario. His opposition to the BJP is no choice but a compulsion since the 2014 polls. Without the Congress, Pawar would find it an uphill task. Similarly, Stalin’s priority is to unseat the AIADMK Government in Tamil Nadu and have a foothold in the next government at the centre. Initially, he was hopeful Modi would dump the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016. But given his party dependence on the minority votes in the state, Stalin realised the Congress was his best bet. He was keen to ally with Rahul so that the Congress won’t try to pressurise the DMK by first securing a coalition with smaller parties.
(The writer is senior Journalist and Political Commentator)