Great AMBITIONS

The Congress is confident of breaking new ground, but going it alone might be a risky venture on the ground

Akash Bisht Delhi

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SUGGESTS that the winner in the 2009 elections would be that 'national' party that has more allies in different states. From this standpoint, the Congress, which successfully headed the UPA coalition for five years, seemed to have the nose ahead of the BJP-led NDA. This was till its allies took their leave from the Congress by saying "see you again" next time and chose to go their way. The question is: What is happening on the ground and why are political parties not willing to contest with the Congress?

On the face of it, the Congress looks helpless - a grand old party that has been deserted by strong, regional political outfits. First, it was their new ally in UP, the Samajwadi Party (SP,) that bailed them out over the civilian nuclear deal in Parliament despite a troubled relationship. The SP refused to give Congress as many seats as they were demanding in UP. So the SP left six seats for Sonia Gandhi, her son, Rahul, and few others and bid adieu to the tense relationship.
In Bihar, their "loyal" ally, Lalu Prasad Yadav, "unilaterally" announced three seats for the Congress and split the rest with Ram Vilas Paswan. The Congress felt humiliated and chose to go alone in all the seats. In Tamil Nadu, too, another partner, PMK, parted ways to join the AIADMK-led front, leaving the Congress orphaned with the DMK.

These raptures have a pattern: first there is a manifest disconnect between how the Congress and allies perceive each other's strength, they haggle and part ways. The Congress leaders claim that the multiple-divorce were choreographed long ago by none other than Rahul Gandhi. In a Congress Working Committee meeting, Rahul positioned himself against having a national alliance with UPA allies. He claimed that it "would be disastrous" for the party. Sharad Pawar's NCP was lobbying hard for such a tie-up. The net outcome of this "forced" change in strategy is that the Congress may contest 450 seats in the country.

The decision to fight elections alone in UP and Bihar has spread excitement in party ranks. Devinder Dwivedi is one of those senior Congress leaders who has been lobbying hard that the Congress should fight elections alone in these states to build a base it has lost due to the compulsions of coalition politics.

In an exclusive interview with Hardnews, Dwivedi said: "The alliance in no way meant that the Congress has agreed to freeze its present strength as part of the coalition dharma and let the partners expand, acquire political legitimacy and profile at the national level. Some of them expect that we should permanently seal our lost terrain to them and help them become national parties. So that, as and when it suits them, they can part ways and challenge the Congress. This is totally unacceptable."

Party leaders have repeatedly expressed that the Congress should have decided on this strategy long back ensuring considerable time to nurture candidates and their constituencies. Several prominent Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Digvijay Singh and others are behind sponsoring this strategy. Dwivedi added, "Congress is doing what it should have done much earlier."

Rahul has been working towards identifying young candidates from various constituencies to rebuild the party organisation in the areas where they had no presence. However, he could not give shape to his vision due to the exigencies of politics. After talks broke down with Lalu and Mulayam, the party high command began to distribute tickets to rebels from different parties. Sadhu Yadav, Ramesh Chand Tomar, Mohd Salman Bashar, Salim Sherwani, Ramlal Rahi among many others, have joined the party lately. This selection process, some Congressmen feel, could create discontent within local workers and lead to infighting. "The Congress has announced candidates on so many seats that it will have to field paid workers instead of party workers," said Vijay Sanghvi, senior political analyst.

The Congress had a strong alliance down south but with MDMK and PMK (and the Left) backing out in Tamil Nadu, the Left and TRS dumping it in Andhra Pradesh, and talks with JD(S) breaking down in Karnataka, it's on a weak wicket. Allies like the NCP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) are slowly penetrating new areas. In West Bengal, out of the total tally of 42 seats, Congress has only 14, while TMC has 28. The TMC has posited itself as the main opposition force against the CPM. The NCP in Maharashtra is increasing its stake with each passing elections.

THE FAILURE OF Congress in these states is because of its policy to showcase itself as a national party and too much dependence on its allies to get to power at the Centre. The party forgot that its very supporters at the Centre are its rivals in the states and satisfied with the coalition leader image, it hardly paid attention to the states that were once its strongholds. "In the interest of political stability of the country, the Congress leaned backwards to accommodate regional leaders who then occupied the political space that belonged to the Congress. The question is not of coming to power at the Centre, but providing leadership to the country at this critical juncture to strengthen national politics," says Dwivedi.

Senior Congress leader said that this whole process started with the seat-sharing formula with the BSP in UP in 1996. The party supported the BSP to keep the BJP out of power but on hindsight the BSP took over the party's trusted dalit vote-bank and came to power. And the trend continues till this day in different forms.

Despite this, the Congress leadership looks upbeat and claims that its situation has improved since 2004 and they are sure of doing well in the upcoming elections. Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh said, "Our seats and vote share will surely rise as we are much more organised in our publicity campaign and candidate selection. Personally, I feel that the party is much more confident then it was in 2004."
Many others in the party buy this viewpoint and suggest that they are certain that there will be a Congress-led UPA government at the Centre again. The emergence of Rahul Gandhi will also increase the Congress vote-bank substantially.

 There is a debate going on that by fielding so many candidates the Congress might divide the secular vote and in turn the NDA might benefit. "There is a myth that secular votes are with Lalu and Mulayam. Having to choose between the Congress and these parties, an overwhelming number of voters will prefer the Congress except for those who vote for reasons of caste," informed Dwivedi.

Sanghvi says, "To begin with, there has been no improvement in the geographical reach of the party, in their manifesto they have thrown crumbs at the poor. The condition of the poor hasn't improved during the Congress rule as the majority still don't earn even Rs 20 a day. So it would be extremely difficult to rebuild in the Hindi heartland and appeal to the aam aadmi that it talks about. It would also be difficult for the Congress to come to power at the Centre as except for the JMM and NCP they have no other credible allies."

The Congress leaders are not buying this. They are hoping that they can harness the desire amongst the middle class to vote for a national party at a time when the economy is in dumps and threat looms from terrorists. The Mumbai terror attack has reinforced such a need. There is a view that the Congress decided to fight more seats as they have realised that it just can't hit the 150 mark if they contest only 350 seats. There is a need to fight 450 plus seats. What needs to be seen is whether the Congress leadership has read the ground reality properly. And that can be the turning point, as the BJP's India Shining saw in 2004.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: April 2009