How a Bogged Down Congress Has Left it to Regional Forces to Lead Fight Against BJP
While the grand old party may deem itself the ruling party-in-waiting, it is the regional leaders who are giving the BJP a run for its money.
File photo of N Chandrababu Naidu, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav during the swearing-in ceremony of HD Kumaraswamy. (PTI)
‘Think national, fight local’ is the mantra in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Regional parties are giving the BJP a run for its money, even as the Congress is bogged down by a series of unforced errors, dissension and a lack of fighting spirit.
The grand old party may deem itself the ruling party-in-waiting, but it is the regional leaders who are taking the fight to the BJP. Driving the point home, NCP leader Sharad Pawar touted Mamata Bannerjee, Mayawati and Chandrababu Naidu as possible prime ministers, leaving Congress president Rahul Gandhi out of the running.
West Bengal is a case in point. Mamata Bannerjee has put up a strong resistance to the BJP's encroachment on her turf, even as the Left-Congress alliance flopped and infighting undermined the Congress’ prospects. The Left, too, has thrown everything it has into the campaign and is visible on the ground. But the Congress has ceded space to the BJP, as was evident in the third phase of polling which covered the former’s territory.
In many seats, the contest has been polarised between TMC and BJP, to 'Didi's' benefit. The seven-phase battle has enabled the chief minister to tour all the 42 constituencies and rectify weak spots in her formidable organisation. Starting with an advantage of 32 per cent minority votes, she is undeterred by the defection of Mukul Roy and other erstwhile TMC leaders to the BJP.
In Maharashtra, Pawar is the engine pulling the Opposition alliance. In a clever coup, he drafted the combative MNS leader, Raj Thackeray, to lend impetus to the campaign. Meanwhile, there is a free-for-all in the Congress. Open dissension and a flurry of defections have severely embarrassed the party particularly that of CLP leader Radhakrishnan Vikhe Patil, who was named a star campaigner even as his son joined the BJP. He has now quit the post, but the damage is done.
Even in the national capital, the Congress is failing to leverage its national party stature to win over voters aggrieved with the BJP. The AAP is leading the charge, with an edgy, street-by-street campaign supported by social media. The failure of the proposed AAP-Congress alliance in Delhi highlighted the differences between top Congress leaders Sheila Dikshit and Ajay Maken. She successfully opposed the alliance, while he openly declared that the absence of a tie-up would depress the Congress tally.
In Bihar, the Congress has neither a leader nor a robust organisation. It is the junior partner in the Opposition alliance and Tejashwi Yadav is the undisputed leader. Even so, differences erupted over seat-sharing and its Big Brother attitude in Jharkhand annoyed the young RJD leader. Likewise in Odisha, the BJP’s expansionism is being contained by chief minister and Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik, with the Congress as an also-ran.
Karnataka is the one state in the south where the Congress and BJP are going head-to-head. Here, the Congress has an organisation and a strong leader in Siddaramaiah. But his differences with Janata Dal (S) supremo HD Deve Gowda may prove to be the undoing of the alliance. The word on the street is that Siddaramaiah, who believes he was sabotaged in Chamundeshwari in the assembly polls, will pay the JD(S) back in kind in Mandya where Gowda's grandson is contesting.
In Uttar Pradesh, the SP-BSP mahagathbandhan is gelling far better than expected and posing a serious threat to the BJP’s pursuit of an absolute majority. The Congress, meanwhile, is in the running in only a handful of seats. General secretary Priyanka Gandhi claimed her party had fielded candidates who could cut into the BJP's vote share. Why then, would it field a strong Muslim candidate against the BSP’s Muslim nominee in Saharanpur? It did the same in Bijnor.
The Congress has its own stable of strong regional leaders. In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh has the advantage of an enfeebled NDA, but in Haryana and Rajasthan, infighting has adversely impacted the party’s chances. In Gujarat, the Congress trump card in the assembly elections, Hardik Patel, lost traction after formally joining the party, while its OBC 'face' Alpesh Thakor quit on the eve of polls.
Even in Jammu and Kashmir, where it reached an understanding with the National Conference in an attempt to contain the BJP, there is a marked lack of bonhomie. NC leader Akbar Lone went so far as to say the Congress was more dangerous than the BJP.
The message to the Congress is clear: in most states, regional forces do not need the Congress to take on the BJP.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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