The INDIA Bloc coordination committee's September 13 decision to hold a rally in Bhopal on October 1 was scrapped three days later. The reason - Kamal Nath, who heads the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, called out the hypocrisy of a unity extravaganza, at some cost to the party's fragile finances, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Samajwadi Party were declaring their own candidates for elections in the state later this year.
He conveyed his clear message to the leadership and committed the Madhya Pradesh Congress unit's resources into launching seven "Jan Aakrosh (people's angst) Yatras" across the state beginning on Ganesh Chaturthi (September 19). The choice of the date reflects Kamal Nath's competitive religiosity - his counter to the ruling BJP's Hindutva. Nath, unlike central leaders of the Congress, had distanced himself from Tamil Nadu Minister and DMK youth icon Udaynidhi Stalin's remarks against Sanatan Dharm, by asserting that "Bharat is the nation of Sanatan Dharm".
In a recent interview, Nath had said that his fight was primarily aimed at countering the "sangathan" (organisation) of BJP, which axiomatically entails refurbishing the Congress's "sangathan" in Madhya Pradesh. His government was toppled by defections. A number of defectors who had joined the BJP with Jyotirdaditya Scindia in 2020 have, in recent months, returned to the Congress fold.
Kamal Nath regularly organises religious events in his borough of Chhindwara, a Lok Sabha seat he represented nine times 1980 onwards (His son Nakul is MP now). All nine assembly seats of Chhindwara are with the Congress (Nath represents Chhindwara in the state assembly). "We go to the temple for our belief and not to bring it to the political stage," the former Chief Minister recently told an interviewer.
Being a longstanding friend of the Gandhi family (he was Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi's Doon School contemporary) Nath has a good equation with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is often seen at Madhya Pradesh Congress events. Nath is the sole Congress satrap who retains a veneer of autonomy around his persona. "The Bhopal rally is not going to happen," was the one-liner with which Nath put paid to the plan charted by the coordination committee at Sharad Pawar's Delhi residence last Thursday. The Congress is the dominant partner of the bloc in Madhya Pradesh.
Leaders of states where the Congress does not have "dominance" in the Bloc also differ from the central leadership. West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Punjab's leaders Amrinder Raja Warring and Pratap Singh Bajwa, Delhi's Ajay Maken and of late, new Uttar Pradesh Congress president Ajai Rai, have been sounding notes of caution on ties with parties which have grown essentially by poaching on Congress turf.
The uncertainties and the extreme regional postures of these partners of the bloc have been worrying Congress leaders at the state level though the central leadership has been rooting for the bloc, which was reiterated at the first meeting of the reconstituted Congress Working Committee (CWC) in Hyderabad last weekend.
In the recent by-elections, INDIA constituents won four of the seven seats, but the faultlines were evident in each victory. In West Bengal's Dhupguri, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool ousted the CPI (M) candidate backed by the Congress; Puthupally in Kerala saw the Congress retain former Chief Minister Late Oommen Chandy's seat in spite of incumbent CPI (M) Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's strong campaign for his candidate. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav declared the Ghosi victory in Uttar Pradesh as a "victory for INDIA", but state Congress chief Ajai Rai questioned whether the defeat of the Congress in Uttarakhand's Bageshwar, caused by the Samajwadi Party candidate eating into his party's votes, was not a defeat for the bloc.
The Congress Working Committee meeting in Hyderabad - where Kamal Nath was not among the 90 attendees (35 CWC members plus invitees) - passed a resolution heavily critical of the BJP regime of Narendra Modi, listing its "failures" across several fronts at home and abroad. It did not spell out an alternative vision that the Congress could offer.
Rahul Gandhi's penchant for his "Vision of India" seems to be a rhetoric that he relies upon while addressing audiences abroad but one that his party is at a loss to formulate. The Hyderabad meet did not chart a "Congress strategy" for the Grand Old Party to reconnect with the electorate and regain power.
Hyderabad was the first meeting of Mallikarjun Kharge's CWC. He took seven months since being authorised by the party's Raipur plenary in February to reconstitute the leadership panel. A seasoned politician with five decades of electoral victories under his belt, Kharge continues to live in the shadow of Rahul Gandhi and his idiosyncrasies. He has not been able to appoint new central office bearers, though he has made some state-level appointments.
Ipso facto, Rahul Gandhi extends all courtesy to the octogenarian Congress President. He even helps him climb stairs and holds his hand while he is getting onto a dais. In Paris, commenting on Kharge not being invited by the President of India to the G20 dinner, Rahul Gandhi described him as the "leader of 60 per cent Indians". (Congress won 19% votes in 2019. It has 13% of seats in the two Houses of Parliament; 17% of State legislators belong to Congress.)
A scrutiny of President Draupadi Murmu's guest list would show that BJP President JP Nadda was not included either. Union Ministers and state Chief Ministers were on the list.
Triggered by Rahul Gandhi's comment, three Congress Chief Ministers - Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel and Siddaramaiah - gave the G20 invite of the President a miss. Himachal Pradesh's Sukhvinder Sukhu attended and Narendra Modi's warmest hug seemed reserved for him.
Four Chief Ministers of the INDIA bloc, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, MK Stalin and Hemant Soren, attended the dinner. Photos of all three being accorded appropriate courtesy, including being introduced to US President Joe Biden by the Prime Minister, appeared the next day. Apparently, Rahul Gandhi's abhorrence for G20 (which he criticised abroad while the nation applauded) is not shared by members of the opposition Bloc.
The vulnerability and fragility of the INDIA bloc is apparent. Apart from the Congress's turf battles with regional parties and AAP, even CPI(M), whose Secretary Sitaram Yechury is Rahul Gandhi's beacon on many issues, is demanding seats from the Congress in the four states that will vote later this year. The CPI (M) has not named its nominee to the bloc's coordination panel so far. The road to anti-BJP unity is riddled by potholes.
(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.