A debate has been raging within the Congress ever since Nitish Kumar espoused Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal's cause in a meeting with Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi last week. Nitish Kumar was in Delhi to continue his anti-BJP unity effort. Along with his deputy in Bihar, RJD's Tejashwi Yadav (who accompanies him like an apprentice in all inter-party confabulations), Nitish Kumar first met Arvind Kejriwal at the Delhi Chief Minister's plush new living quarters. The controversy over the Centre's ordinance tweaking the Supreme Court verdict, which empowered Kejriwal's government on the control of civil servants, was the main topic - Kejriwal sought the support of opposition parties to stymie legislation needed to formalise the ordinance into statute. As the ruling BJP is just short of the halfway mark in Rajya Sabha, Kejriwal wants the opposition to unite and defeat the Bill in Rajya Sabha in the monsoon session. Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav agreed and carried the baton to Kharge's residence 10 Rajaji Marg soon thereafter. The initial reaction of the Congress leadership in favour of joining the relay was perhaps reflected by positive noises from the party's General Secretary (Organisation), KC Venugopal. However, after Congress leaders from Delhi and Punjab and even West Bengal red-flagged it, Venugopal said a final decision would be taken after consulting with regional leaders of the party.
It is widely known that AAP's rise has been marked by a corresponding decline in the Congress vote bank and support base. Thus, Ajay Maken and Sandip Dixit of Delhi and Pratap Singh Bajwa and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and West Bengal's Adhir Ranjan Choudhury (Congress floor leader in Lok Sabha) are wary of aligning with, and thereby strengthening AAP. In 1996, when the then Congress President, PV Narasimha Rao, decided to align the grand old party with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (which too had grown through attrition within Congress turf) in the Uttar Pradesh election, Indira Gandhi's trusted political aide Makhan Lal Fotedar had protested and in a letter warned Rao that the move will lead to "Tamilnaduisation" of Congress. (Congress lost Madras, as Tamil Nadu was then called, in 1967-it hasn't recovered ground since. Currently, it is a junior ally of the DMK; at times it played second fiddle to AIADMK as well). Fotedar was prophetic. The Congress, which had won 94 of 424 seats in 1989(the equivalent of the 1967 TN loss in UP), won 33 and soon after, Mayawati dumped the party and aligned with the BJP. In the two assembly by-elections in UP held on the day when Karnataka was won, the Congress polled less than two per cent votes and drew a blank in the local body polls.
While lining up with AAP, the Congress will have to overlook that two of its former ministers in Punjab are in jail and five former MLAs are facing various charges brought against them by the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP regime. While AAP cries hoarse on the arrest of Satyendar Jain and Manish Sisodia in Delhi, its government in Punjab is persecuting Congress leaders. AAP's Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema, in his first Budget speech on June 29 last, had indicated that ministers of the previous regime will be booked and this was implemented with lightning speed. Congress leaders are also being persecuted by Bengal's Trinamool regime. In March this year, state Congress spokesman Kaustav Bagchi was picked up by the police at midnight because of a comment on Mamata Banerjee. Bagchi, a lawyer, was granted bail when lawyers of the Congress and CPI(M) rallied behind him and approached the courts.
Analysts seem to overlook a prime takeaway from Karnataka - the Congress increased its vote share and seats primarily by cutting into the Janata Dal (Secular) vote bank. For the first time since 1972 - when Muslims last voted en masse for the Congress - the party benefitted from their vote. In the past 50 years, Muslims across the country found various reasons to shun Congress. Vasectomy and the Muzaffarnagar firing in 1976; the Shah Bano episode and the Babri issue distanced this traditional vote bank from Congress. At present Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party in UP, the Nitish-Tejaswi Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, Hemant Soren's JMM in Jharkhand and a host of other regional parties graze merrily on the turf that used to be Congress's.
Significantly Mamata Banerjee's negative tone on the Congress turned a tad positive after the Karnataka result; the Muslim vote factor could not have been lost on her. More so, as the Congress had wrested in March this year Sagardighi, a Muslim-dominated seat where bypolls were held due to the death of a Trinamool MLA. Just as AAP re-entered Lok Sabha by wresting a seat from the Congress in Jalandhar, Sagardighi saw the return of the Congress in the Bengal assembly, to the Trinamool's chagrin.
Akhilesh Yadav's fondness for the Congress is quite evident in his recent announcement that in 2024 the Samajwadi Party will not forego its right to contest Gandhi family boroughs Rae Bareli and Amethi. In the past, the party had made adjustments with the Congress in these constituencies. Akhilesh Yadav has also indicated that he will shift from Muslim-dominated Azamgarh, which he won in 2019, to his former seat Kannauj in 2024. Akhilesh Yadav met with Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata soon after Nitish Kumar and Tejaswi Yadav did so and unlike the Bihar leaders, had supported her concept of a front sans Congress.
Karnataka has placed the Congress in a niche position in the opposition confabulations. The Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi injected some energy into the party, and Karnataka has further buoyed the morale of the party cadres.
At this juncture, the grand old party has to tread carefully. Its ideological antinomy to BJP notwithstanding, it shares with the ruling party the alcove of being a national party-in fact, its nationwide footprint is yet to be matched by the BJP. So, regional parties and parties with national pretence like AAP and Telangana's BRS are not natural allies for the Congress.
In Maharashtra, where the Congress is part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, two significant statements made by leaders of its partners, NCP and Shiv Sena (Uddhav) betray the party's isolation. NCP's legislature party head Ajit Pawar said his party has more seats than the Congress and suggested pole position for the NCP in alliance talks for 2024. Sanjay Raut of Uddhav Thackeray's party has laid claim to 19 Lok Sabha seats on the basis of the undivided Shiv Sena's tally of 2019, when the BJP was its ally (12 of the 19 are now with the Shinde Shiv Sena). Thus the hostility of MVA allies needs to be factored in too - Sharad Pawar's praise for Congress and Rahul Gandhi notwithstanding.
"We started committing the mistake of supporting other parties and still continue to do so. Our voters started voting directly for other parties and the Congress lost ground," a veteran Congress leader once lamented.
Opinion polls have shown that while Narendra Modi remains way ahead in popularity ratings, Rahul Gandhi is favoured by some 27 % as their Prime Ministerial choice. Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are at four per cent each while the "fulcrum" of unity, Nitish Kumar, polled just one per cent. One may or may not applaud the abilities of Rahul Gandhi but his ratings cannot be wished away. Thus, by aligning with AAP and other parties which graze on traditional Congress turf, the party may well justify Fotedar's apprehension of "Tamilnaduisation" voiced a quarter century ago.
(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.