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Mahagathbandhan not quite so ‘maha’ as cracks appear between Congress and regional parties

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Congress wants state-specific tie-ups but some parties want to use alliance to increase base — a scenario where 2019 could see two opposition fronts.

New Delhi: The much-touted mahagathbandhan or a grand alliance of all opposition parties for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is unlikely to take shape.

The Congress is not inclined to a pre-poll alliance in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi and some other states even as regional parties are joining hands in solidarity to keep the grand old party from dictating terms.

Last week, four chief ministers and prospective members of the grand alliance — Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, HD Kumaraswamy and Pinarayi Vijayan — came out in support of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in his feud with Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, a move that betrayed the widening fault-lines in the mahagathbandhan-in-the-making.

The Congress had criticised Kejriwal for holding a sit-in at the Raj Niwas and called it “an excuse not to work”.

Though a section of the Congress favours a tie up with Kejriwal, party president Rahul Gandhi is learnt to be opposed to any alliance with the AAP, which he holds responsible for the ouster of the UPA in 2014. The Congress is also not interested in any alliance with Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) of KC Chandrasekhar Rao, its principal political adversaries in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

“Rahulji has to first decide whether his immediate priority is to remove the BJP from power or to regain the party’s lost ground. If it’s the first, he should think of allying with the AAP in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana in the Lok Sabha elections,” a senior Congress functionary told ThePrint.

In West Bengal, Congress leaders said, the party can win more seats in an alliance with the Left but it can’t afford to displease Banerjee, who is pitching herself as the fulcrum of the anti-BJP alliance.

“You have to accommodate various political parties together. That is the reality of politics today,” NCP general secretary D.P. Tripathi told ThePrint.

Differences between the Congress and the regional parties over the nature and contours of the mahagathbandhan have opened up the possibility of more than one anti-BJP grouping in 2019.

Centre in crosshairs, Congress in the way

The decision of the four chief ministers to support Kejriwal was, ostensibly, meant to corner the NDA government at the Centre on the issue of alleged interference in states’ affairs. But the move seemed to be targeted more at the Congress that is coming in the way of an all-encompassing grand alliance. The Congress favours a mahagathbandhan but it would like pre-poll tie-ups to be state-specific, said leaders privy to deliberations over this issue.

They explained that the Congress would like pre-poll alliances in states such as Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, but would prefer to go it alone in others where it is directly pitted against regional parties for domination.

“Such alliances can’t be at the expense of the Congress that has a pan-India presence,” said a party strategist.

Regional chieftains, however, see in the mahagathbandhan an opportunity to expand their footprint on turfs that are traditionally dominated by the two major national parties — the Congress and the BJP. Many of them have their own ambitions in Delhi and they want a weakened Congress to help to realise them.

It is this divergence and conflicts of interest that were manifest when the four chief ministers came out in support of Kejriwal.

“They (non-Congress opposition CMs) are trying to create a pressure group for pre-poll or post-poll bargaining with us,” a Congress general secretary told ThePrint.

That explains the NCP’s decision to throw its weight behind other regional players.

Comfort & concern for BJP

The divisions in the opposition camp are good news for the BJP as they could make it easier for the saffron party in the first-past-the-post system.

What they are more bothered about is the prospect of a Congress-SP-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh and a Congress-RJD-NCP-HAM-X (the X being one or more of the sulking NDA partners) tie-up in Bihar — the two states that sent 93 BJP candidates to the Lok Sabha in 2014.

What might also please the BJP is that three of the four chief ministers — Kumaraswamy, Banerjee and Naidu — who sided with Kejriwal had broken bread with the ruling party at the Centre at some point or the other.

The NCP’s dalliance with the BJP is also not a secret. The so-called pressure group in the opposition camp has the potential to draw in other non-BJP CMs who can switch to either side post-elections — Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and even Nitish Kumar, who is showing signs of unease in the NDA.

If the differences between the Congress and these regional chieftains persist, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections could witness two opposition fronts — one led by the Congress and another amorphous one led by one of the regional satraps.

A Congress functionary listed the party’s “sure-shot allies” in 2019: The SP, BSP and RLD in Uttar Pradesh; the NCP in Maharashtra; the RJD in Bihar; the JMM in Jharkhand; the DMK in Tamil Nadu; and the JD(S) in Karnataka.

“As for others, we have to see. No decision has been taken yet. As it looks today, we may have pre-poll alliances with some parties and tacit understanding with others. Our main objective is to defeat the BJP. But we also have to see that our support base expands, and doesn’t shrink, as a result of such alliances,” he said.

Regional parties are unlikely to vouch for that, though.

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