When the election season started, Mayawati was mad with the Congress - so mad that she refused to allow it any room in the mahagathbandhan or her alliance with Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, created to block Narendra Modi from sweeping India's most vital state. After four of seven phases of voting, Mayawati, or Behen-ji (sister) as she's known, hasn't cooled off. In fact, the Congress has compounded its offense. And now, its four-month-old government in Madhya Pradesh, which is supported by Behen-ji, could be in jeopardy.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath, one of the smoothest operators in Indian politics, is working the phone lines with Mayawati, well aware that if she walks, so does Akhilesh Yadav - and that means his government starts wobbling.
But Mayawati's fury is as well-established as Kamal Nath's ability to pull out all the stops when needed. And right now, it's tough for him to explain his party's actions.
It all began with Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia poaching Mayawati's candidate, Lokendra Singh Rajput, in Guna from where he is contesting the general election. Mayawati was supposed to address a rally for him in Guna on May 4 and this was a big public embarrassment for her.
Scindia added to her wrath by welcoming Rajput to the Congress on Twitter on Monday.
Mayawati retaliated, also on Twitter, repeating her now-common allegation that the Congress and the BJP are equally untrustworthy. She said that like the BJP, the Congress is adept at using its governments to intimidate the opposition as exemplified by her candidate switching sides. She also threatened to withdraw support to the Madhya Pradesh government.
सरकारी मशीनरी के दुरुपयोग के मामले में कांग्रेस भी बीजेपी से कम नहीं। एमपी के गुना लोकसभा सीट पर बीएसपी उम्मीदवार को कांग्रेस ने डरा-धमकाकर जबर्दस्ती बैठा दिया है किन्तु बीएसपी अपने सिम्बल पर ही लड़कर इसका जवाब देगी व अब कांग्रेस सरकार को समर्थन जारी रखने पर भी पुनर्विचार करेगी।— Mayawati (@Mayawati) April 30, 2019
Kamal Nath has four votes more than what he needs to remain in power (The half-way mark for the MP assembly is 116). Three of those four votes come from Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati's legislators. Besides this, four are independents who are reportedly already in talks with the BJP.
"We can bring down the Kamal Nath government anytime but we are waiting for the (Lok Sabha) results to come," bragged a BJP leader to me.
What death wish possesses the Congress in putting at risk its largest heartland government for the sake of poaching one candidate from Mayawati? This act exposes the ugly inner party rivalry between Kamal Nath and Scindia which has infected the running of the government and the handling of the general election just months after the Congress wrested Madhya Pradesh from the BJP which had governed the state for 15 years consecutively.
Worse, it also demonstrates the central Congress party's absolutely chaotic decision-making process. Just who is in charge and calling the shots?
With three rounds of polling still to go, including in critical Eastern UP, this tells you everything you need to know about how the Congress treats opposition unity, so crucial to blocking the BJP. Mayawati feels disrespected by the Congress and is convinced that Kamal Nath and Scindia are trying to break the BSP's unit in Madhya Pradesh. Akhilesh Yadav is equally angry as Kamal Nath reneged earlier on a promise to him to make the sole Samajwadi Party legislator a minister.
Yadav, who has struck an amazing working relationship with Mayawati, has assured her of jointly cancelling support to Kamal Nath if needed, saying "the Congress needs to be taught a lesson".
The Congress, which still fancies itself as a national party, has been wrong footing the entire opposition. The endemic infighting is affecting its electoral prospects in states such as Rajasthan where Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is busy trying to ensure the election of his son Vaibhav Gehlot from Jodhpur, to the exclusion of the other 24 candidates. Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot who had opposed the candidature of Gehlot Junior and is still smarting from not being given the state's top job, and is doing the bare minimum for the critical Lok Sabha elections. On the other hand, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have been on a campaign overdrive ensuring that the unpopular ex Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia is kept under wraps.
Rahul Gandhi and his team seem confused about whether the goal in Election 2019 is to stop the Modi juggernaut at any cost or grow the Congress party. Gandhi can't do both. And this conflict is leading to a half-hearted fight against the BJP which is also turning the rest of the opposition against the Congress. Prime examples are Delhi where the Congress was happy to write off seven Lok Sabha seats rather than ally with the Aam Aadmi Party in Haryana and Delhi. A somewhat ludicrous stand given that the Congress party is in no sweet spot in Haryana where, again, huge infighting means it is hardly headed for a strong showing.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is playing spoiler to the mahagathbandhan without any cost-benefit analysis of how this could actually be only helping the BJP. In Bihar, Gandhi finally shared the stage with ally Tejashwi Yadav after three stages of voting had ended. Without Lalu Prasad Yadav's healing touch, the alliance seems frayed.
Maharashtra with 48 seats also witnessed the ritual infighting within the Congress specially in the Mumbai unit. Even after the tantrums calmed down, the Congress and its ally Sharad Pawar seem unable to match the NDA's ground game despite the huge farmer anger and agrarian distress in the state.
Sonia Gandhi had walked across on foot to neighbour Ram Vilas Paswan's home to enlist him in the UPA in 2004. Rahul Gandhi seems to lack that connect with allies and regional parties. And this is costing the opposition, much to Shah's delight.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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