Wednesday, 6 July, 2022
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Congress-mukt Bharat is not just BJP’s dream anymore. Other parties want it too

There is a reason why TMC, BSP to DMK, most regional parties are ditching Congress coalition plans.

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Assembly bypolls in Kolkata’s Bhawanipur are sending out loud signals, with significant implications for national politics. It’s not about West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s victory or defeat. Even Bharatiya Janata Party leaders aren’t so blindsided. They know the massive odds stacked against their candidate in the bypolls.

The signals that are coming from Bhawanipur are about the soaring ambitions of regional parties such as the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). “We will fight in different parts of India. Tripure me khela hobe, Assam me khela hobe, Goa me khela hobe, UP me khela hobe… BJP should know that a party has finally come to fight them,” Banerjee said while campaigning in Alipore on 22 September.

Four days later, on Sunday, her nephew and parliamentarian Abhishek Banerjee echoed her in another part of Bhawanipur constituency: “Be ready… we are ready to take our political battles outside Bengal.”

They were not making rhetorical points. Trinamool Congress leaders, supported by Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), are already camping in Assam, Goa and Tripura. The party intends to contest in the Uttar Pradesh election, too. On Monday, the TMC gave a big jolt to the Congress, with former Goa CM Goa Luizinho Faleiro, a Gandhi family loyal, likely joining Mamata’s party.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has already sounded the bugle in Punjab, UP, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Goa, promising a slew of freebies and bonanza. In Maharashtra, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena (SS) are coalition partners of the Congress, but both are seeking to expand their footprints at the latter’s expense. Even the CPI(M) is embracing Congress defectors in Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has given short shrift to the Congress, denying it a Rajya Sabha seat, which they had promised in exchange for the Congress agreeing to contest only 25 seats in the last assembly election. The Congress is now cribbing about getting a raw deal from the DMK in the local body polls in the state. In Uttar Pradesh, neither the Samajwadi Party (SP) nor the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) wants to have anything to do with the Congress.


Also read: In Mamata bypoll seat, Gujaratis & Marwaris are ‘BJP backers’ but TMC has history on its side


This is when Sonia Gandhi has been seeking to forge a front of like-minded parties to take on the BJP. The idea of opposition unity was always fallacious, given the inherent contradictions in such an arrangement, marked by conflicting ambitions. But already pushed to the political margins in most of India, the GOP or Grand Old Party was trying it as a survival tactic for so long because it’s unable to beat the Narendra Modi-propelled Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sonia Gandhi has, in some sense, sought to replicate what her mother-in-law, late Indira Gandhi, had done in the 1971 election in Tamil Nadu. To keep her position secure at the Centre, she had entered into a deal with the DMK, contesting the Lok Sabha election in alliance but ceding the turf entirely to its Dravidian partner in the assembly election. That was the death-knell for the Congress in the southern state. Sonia Gandhi, and later Rahul Gandhi, tried out a similar-though-modified formula by allying with the party’s chief rivals in many states to stay afloat at the Centre. This led to further decline of the Congress, which was struggling to recover from Mandal-Kamandal political blow.

As it is, regional parties (though, technically, some of them are ‘national parties’ with their base limited to one state) no longer seem inclined to keep the Congress afloat. While proclaiming the BJP as their Enemy No. 1, they are seeking to eat into the Congress’ vote-share in different states, which would otherwise have accrued to it as the principal opposition party. The TMC or the AAP, for instance, would grow in the northeast or Gujarat or any other state with bipolar politics (such as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, et al) only on the ruins of the principal opposition party  that’s the Congress.


Also read: How Nagaland has become India’s first state to be Opposition-mukt


What makes Congress regional parties’ target

First of all, most of these parties — be it the TMC, AAP, NCP, SP, BSP, Telangana Rashtra Samith(TRS), or the YSR Congress party—had their core vote bank carved out of the Congress. Even today, they fight for the same vote bank. According to Lokniti-CSDS National Election Studies, as cited by Sanjay Kumar in an article in The Indian Express, both the Congress and the regional parties have been losing their vote shares in national elections. In the last seven Lok Sabha elections, the Congress’ vote share percentage hovered around mid-20s, which came down to slightly below 20 per cent in 2014 and 2019. The drop has been sharper for the regional parties—down to 26.4 per cent in 2019 from mid-30s in the previous five elections. The BJP seems to have benefited at the cost of both.

With the Congress showing signs of further deterioration, regional parties find it a good opportunity for them to try to make up for their losses at the Congress’ expense. Congress vote bank in West Bengal, for instance, has got split between the TMC and the BJP. A large chunk of it has gone to the AAP in Delhi, to the TRS in Telangana, and so on and so forth. These parties have reasons to try and mop up the remaining support base before the BJP swoops in on them. 

Second, some of these regional/national parties no longer need the support of the Congress to take on the BJP on their home turf  TMC in Bengal, AAP in Delhi, DMK in Tamil Nadu, to name a few. They must subsume the Congress’ votes elsewhere to grow in other states in their attempt to emerge as a national alternative. Thanks to their victories over the BJP on their home turf, these smaller parties are confident of replicating it elsewhere if the Congress gets out of their way in other states. Sushmita Dev, a prominent Congress face in Assam, and Luizinho Faleiro in Goa joining the TMC and even former Congressman Pradyot Debbarman holding talks with Mamata point to this trend.

Third, these smaller players have lost confidence in the Congress as a party that can hold fort against the BJP. So, while they themselves can’t hope to dislodge the saffron party from its preeminent position yet, they gain nothing from supporting a battered Congress and keeping it alive on the battlefield. A dead Congress may offer them better opportunities.

Fourth, revival of the Congress at any point in time poses as much threat to many of them as the BJP does today. For instance, TRS’ K. Chandrashekar Rao is better off fighting with the BJP today, rather than having to fight on two fronts in case the Congress also gains strength in Telangana. The same holds true for Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal.

Last but not the least, regional satraps have less chance of fulfilling their personal ambitions—occupying the coveted post of the prime minister—as long as the Congress remains the dominant player in any prospective coalition arrangement. The Congress begging for survival holds out more hope for them, if at all.

The author tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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