The non-BJP, non-NDA opposition has begun talking and targeting the ‘half of half’, i.e., half of the 273 Lok Sabha seats, needed for a majority, on its own – a challenging but not unmanageable number in the 2024 elections. The Congress, struggling to keep its house in order, and settle its leadership issue, is expected to score over the other ‘half of half’. Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Maharashatra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are a few states where the grand old party has been in a direct contest with the BJP or traditionally has a strong presence.
Ace political strategist Prashant Kishor, Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, senior Congress leader Kamal Nath, former union minister Yashwant Sinha and a number of other political players have been meeting and holding parleys to thrash out a ‘workable’ strategy. For the record, both the ‘Congress question’ and ‘prime ministerial face’ have been kept out of the scope of the negotiations. In other words, once the non-BJP, non-NDA parties headed by Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu-Tejashwi Yadav, MK Stalin, HD Kumaraswamy, N Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh Yadav and others come on board in states like Maharashtra, Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, etc, some tacit understanding with the Congress would begin.
Both Prashant Kishor, aka PK, and Pawar have many friends in the Congress, who, in turn, have the potential or capability to influence the Congress high command. In fact, a number of disgruntled leaders who are part of a loosely knit ‘Group of 23’, have reportedly sent feelers indicating their desire to join any broad anti-BJP front at an ‘appropriate time’.
What would that ‘appropriate time’ be? There is a lack of clarity on it but is generally interpreted as a period coinciding with the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa assembly polls early next year. If the Congress loses Punjab or fails to return to power in Uttarakhand, without putting up any credible performance in Uttar Pradesh, a split or exodus from the party appears a reality. Of late, even Congress leaders, never short of professing loyalty to the Gandhis, seem to be losing patience in the manner Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have dealt with the political crisis in Punjab and Rajasthan, allowing drift and inaction to thrive. In some virtual in-house meetings, things came to such a pass that party leaders had a slanging match with each other even as Sonia looked on stoically.
The Congress is also under pressure from within and outside (PK, Pawar and other protagonists) to do ‘something’ in order to be in contention for a 100-plus figure in the 18th Lok Sabha. Rahul’s reluctance to return as party chief is turning more bizarre even as his stamp on all key appointments such as new state party chiefs of Telangana and Kerala is visible.
Interestingly, PK’s ties with the Congress are rather shrouded in mystery. Officially, the Congress is reluctant to identify itself with PK’s micro and macro-level political management as it feels political activities of a party, particularly electioneering, can not be ‘outsourced’. At the same time, there is no dearth of state leaders (Punjab included) who have gone into ‘private treaties’ with PK, seeking his guidance and expertise. PK has always been fulsome in his praise for the Gandhis while maintaining silence over the internal Congress affairs. Issues like Captain Amarinder Singh gaining an upper hand before and during the February 2022 assembly polls will have a bearing on PK’s ties with the Congress.
Congress’s ideological clarity on many issues including the Ram temple is crucial. In the weeks to come before the formal countdown for the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have to guard themselves against a liberal-leftist narrative that has the potential of alienating the majority community. At the same time, over-reliance on identifying with the Hindu faith has the potential of boomeranging in some other parts of the country where Hindu-Muslim social relations are not so precarious as in the Hindi heartland.
The 2024 parliamentary polls are set to be contested in contrasting styles. If Team Modi is set to make full use of the Prime Minister’s personal ratings, big-ticket projects, Covid-19 handling in the context of the massive vaccination programme, achievements on the diplomatic front and reliance on emotive issues like Ram temple, the Congress and its potential allies are prepared to take the battle in states where regional players are expected to hold sway. So if Mamata Banerjee, Tejashwi Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, MK Stalin, Naveen Patnaik, HD Kumaraswamy, N Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh Yadav, etc, together manage to hold on to a bulk of parliamentary seats, the Congress has the task of doing well in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam and other north-eastern states, Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra, where it is in a direct contest with the BJP.
In Sonia Gandhi, Rahul has laid trust to be a line of communication with many non-NDA allies including the Left to keep the Mahagathbandhan going in many Indian states. Years in politics have made Sonia one of the finest graduates from the university of life.
The next few months are crucial not only for the Congress but for the entire non-BJP-NDA opposition. The Congress’s ability to keep its house in order, settling the leadership issue, retaining Punjab and winning Uttarakhand can help contribute to the “half of half’ in 2024. Without the Congress, PK, Pawar, Mamata, Stalin and others’ efforts will remain futile and irrelevant in the context of national politics.