It was doomed from the start. The idea of one combined opposition alliance to counter the BJP/NDA juggernaut was even more whimsical than the ‘Third Front’ dream that Communists and other fringe parties harboured for decades before the Congress managed to disintegrate itself as a national party. While one is destined to wake up from every dream, this one was a painfully short-lived one.
With Lok Sabha elections just over two months away, some partners have already dumped the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) – which we prefer to term as the Dotted Alliance. Dotted because every party here is a roadblock for its partner party, and because no nation-loving Bharatiya can allow a bunch of political parties to assume the name of our nation or even its pronunciation.
The Bihar-based Janata Dal (United) and West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress have quit the opposition bloc officially. Aam Admi Party (AAP) chief minister of Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, announced that his party will go solo in the state and will not ally with the Congress. Though AAP’s central leadership has not officially endorsed Mann’s stand, the message is clear. This means a total of 95 seats are already out of the Alliance’s kitty. And if AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal decides to stay aloof in Delhi as well, that would make it 102 constituencies.
Time is running out and there is no clarity on whether the bloc’s surviving partners will be able to seal any seat-sharing equations. The alliance is already losing the battle of perception and staring at a vacuum in terms of a robust structure for a joint campaign or election strategy.
Time is running out and there is no clarity on whether the bloc’s surviving partners will be able to seal any seat-sharing equations
Even Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief minister Farooq Abdullah felt compelled to say publicly that some opposition parties might form a separate alliance if the seat-sharing formula was not decided soon.
The dream of consolidating anti-Modi votes seems destined to a rude awakening as well.
The Dotted Alliance was always a leaderless grouping, wherein no party had the larger vision to take on the leadership role or to inspire the sacrificing of some self-interests for the sake of unity and cohesion. The lofty announcement of “we will fight without projecting any PM face” emanated from the hard reality that each party supremo eyes the PM’s post while none has either the charisma or the following.
Almost all alliance partners are region or state-specific parties that have established their very identity by fighting the Congress. Aligning with the Congress would be bad politics for them – one, because their core supporters had chosen them over the Congress and two, it would be akin to giving a weakened Congress space to regain ground in their personal catchment areas. Most of these regional parties aspire to expand base beyond their state borders in times to come. Hence, while each party is eyeing the other partners’ votes, none are willing to share their core voters in their home states. That the Congress plans to grab their votes, regain its national stature plus lay claim to the PM’s post was always a tangible fear of all alliance partners. The JD(U) voiced this real-time perception loud and clear when it quit the alliance.
CASE OF THE CONGRESS
The fragmentation of the Dotted Alliance reflects the most on the Congress’s image. The fact that the oldest party in the country could not keep regional parties together, even until the election, is a direct hit on the party top brass’s capability. Partners are openly blaming the seat sharing logjam on the Congress. It has also been openly accused of conspiring to ‘hijack’ the leadership of the opposition bloc.
The desertions from the opposition bloc coupled with the Congress’s disastrous performance in the recently concluded Assembly polls in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh has exposed its limited capability and acceptability.
Within the Alliance, the Congress is facing flak for laxity in taking seat-sharing talks forward. The gap of three to four months between each meeting resulted in letting the initial momentum slip, JD(U) leader K.C. Tyagi stated after the Nitish Kumar-led party exited the Dotted Alliance to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
“The Congress let the momentum slip… Nitish and Akhilesh repeatedly questioned the delay in seat-sharing talks. The Congress said there would be no seat-sharing in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Karnataka… They will let the BJP win all seats but will not give us any but want seats disproportionate to their strength in Bihar, UP, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. They want 15 seats in UP, 10 in Bihar, 20 in Maharashtra, 8 in Bengal…. They wanted to finish all of us non-Congress parties as part of a conspiracy,” Tyagi said.
The Congress might want to regain its pre-2014 stature but it has nothing to offer either to the electorate and to its allies – neither mature leadership nor voter confidence. Rahul Gandhi’s ‘nyay yatra’ has only irked alliance partners, achieving nothing for his own party or the alliance. By going for a solo show even in ‘friendly’ states, that too without informing the alliance’s ruling parties, the Congress only managed to underline its narrow minded-approach to coalition politics. The party “ordered” its allies like chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar to join its yatra as if they were its workers, Tyagi said in a press meet.
“The question today before the Congress is of survival…. Instead of looking for survival, they are hoping for a revival. They should have made sacrifices for survival,” Tyagi said. “The attitude of the Congress from day one had not been very positive,” the JD(U) leader said. Insisting that it was Nitish Kumar who made space for the Congress in the opposition bloc, Tyagi accused the Congress of backstabbing the JD(U) itself and of playing games within the alliance (by making Mamata Banerjee suggest Mallikarjun Kharge as the PM face).
“The alliance is breaking because of the stubborn attitude of the Congress. There’s a caucus within the Congress that wants to grab the leadership of the Alliance,” Tyagi said, specifically naming Jairam Ramesh and Mallikarjun Kharge.
It is interesting to note that while it was breaking its state-specific ruling alliance with the RJD, the JD(U) chose to mainly target the Congress for the fragmentation and failures of the Dotted Alliance. Congress further displayed its lack of political maturity when Jairam Ramesh chose to call JD(U)’s exit as “good riddance”.
The DMK, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, has also openly accused the party of only keeping in mind its seats while ignoring the interests of the partners.
Its long-time ally Left Front is also playing the spoiler for the Congress. While it has chosen to stay out of the coordination committee of the Dotted Alliance for unknown reasons, CPI(M) proximity with the Congress has soured its chances at seat sharing in West Bengal – a state with 42 Lok Sabha seats.
Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee says she had offered two parliamentary seats to the Congress with the condition that they part ways with the Left. The Congress rejected the offer, and obviously the condition too – leading to TMC’s exit from the Dotted Alliance.
The TMC had come to power in West Bengal in 2011 after a long struggle to end the 34-year-rule of the Left Front. The TMC had routed the CPI(M), reducing it from 176 to 40 seats, winning 184 of the total 294 seats. The Congress won 42 seats then. In her political journey against the Left, she had taken the support of the BJP as well as the Congress at different times. With that background, Mamata can hardly be expected to align with the Left in her own state. Fighting a resurgent BJP is a political compulsion for Mamata today, especially with the kind of politics she has taken up in the last few years. In any case, the BJP came too close for comfort in the last Assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections – both in terms of seats and vote share. From a vote share of 6.1 per cent in 2009, the BJP rose to 40.6 per cent in 2019.
The Congress and the Left have been natural allies in West Bengal for a long time. The Congress, which has consistently lost vote share in the last three Lok Sabha polls, partnered the Left even in the last panchayat elections – where the combined vote share of the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) managed an upswing of 10 per cent. With just two years to go for the next assembly polls, Mamata is not ready to allow any toehold to this combine.
The Congress’s state leadership, especially Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, also keeps adding fuel to the fire by constantly targeting Mamata and her government. “The three reasons for the alliance not working are 1) Adhir 2) Adhir and 3) Adhir…Adhir is the gravedigger of his own party,” Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien said recently.
The Left Front and the Congress can now divide the West Bengal seats between themselves – for which they had not needed the opposition bloc anyway.
In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in terms of Lok Sabha seats (80), main opposition Samajwadi Party hoped to regain ground by allying with other parties while looking to expand its footprint to other states. The latter hope was dashed when it was left out in the Madhya Pradesh assembly election last year.
Here the Congress also hoped to negotiate seats with the SP. In a bolt from the blue, the SP has announced allocation of 11 Lok Sabha seats for the Congress without any consultation. The unilateral decision has unnerved the Congress. Reports suggest the SP has even selected the 11 seats, though not officially announced the list yet. This list is expected to include Amethi, Rae Bareli, Fatehpur Sikri or Agra, Bulandshahr, Noida, Ghaziabad, Saharanpur, Kanpur, and Maharajganj. The Congress is said to have prepared a list of 25 strong seats, including those mentioned above. Analysts feel Akhilesh took his cue from what the Congress did in Madhya Pradesh.
The Congress tried the BSP card to pressure Akhilesh to allot more seats, but BSP chief Mayawati blew the game by announcing her party would contest Lok Sabha polls independently. Now it has no option but to ally with the SP or go it alone. In the present scenario, it faces a tough challenge even to defend its bastion Rae Bareli. To keep Rae Bareli in its kitty, the Congress party can go for any kind of negotiation.
One wonders if Sonia Gandhi feels confident enough to even contest from Rae Bareli this time – this constituency has sent her to the Lok Sabha for four consecutive terms.
In 2019, the Congress was in direct contest on only four LS seats in UP – Kanpur Urban, Amethi, Rae Bareli and Fatehpur Sikri. Of these, it won Rae Bareli but was runner up in three other seats. In Fatehpur Sikri seat, with Raj Babbar as candidate, the Congress even lost the deposit.
In 2022 assembly polls, it fared even worse in these areas, coming a poor third after BJP and SP. In Amethi the Congress lost its deposit on four assembly constituencies while in Rae Bareli LS seat it lost the deposit in three constituencies.
Seat sharing in other states also is a big ‘IF’. The Congress’s weakened status has mostly left it bereft of a bargaining edge everywhere.
In Maharashtra, which has 48 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress is looking for alliance with the NCP (Sharad Pawar faction) and the Shiv Sena (UBT). But it suffered a major loss of face recently when well-known leader Milind Deora quit the Congress to join the Shiv Sena. Milind Deora was a two-time Congress MP from South Mumbai.
The NCP (Sharad Pawar faction) and the Shiv Sena (UBT) are expected to demand more seats from Congress, which performed poorly in the last two LS polls here. In 2014, the Congress contested 26 seats in Maharashtra and won only 2, and in 2019, it won only one seat while contesting 25.
In Punjab (13 LS seats), the Congress performed badly in two successive by-polls of Sangrur (lost its deposit) and Jalandhar LS seats. Result: AAP is not interested in offering it any seats.
Similarly, in Kerala (20 LS seats), the Left Front rules the state, while the Congress is in opposition. In 2019 LS polls, the IUML contested on two seats and won both. The IUML may demand more seats in Kerala to contest, which may create trouble for the Congress-led UDF alliance in the state. In the Dotted Alliance, the CPI has been putting pressure on Rahul Gandhi to vacate his Wayanad seat and contest from a seat in the Hindi-speaking belt.
In Tamil Nadu, the Congress contested 9 seats in 2019 and won 8. But this time, the the DMK may ask the Congress to contest on lesser seats. as the party had lost strength in entire country.