Opinion: Modi Dives Right In For A Win, Congress Continues To Tread Water

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On Sunday, Narendra Modi scuba-dived into the deep sea to pray at a Mahabharata-era temple at Bet Dwarka. Many see it as yet another pre-poll religio-cultural outreach, invoking Krishna this time, a month after the Ram Temple Pran Pratishtha in January. Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, packed his bags for a trip overseas, perhaps to deliver his 'Mann ki baat' to audiences in Cambridge, England.

There has been much speculation over Rahul's Lok Sabha constituency. The Communist Party of India (CPI) has announced that the president of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), Annie Raja, wife of CPI general secretary D.Raja, will contest from Wayanad-a clear indication that the Left and the Congress are not partners in the I.N.D.I.A bloc as far as Kerala is concerned. Rahul may try to regain Amethi from Smriti Irani, or he may contest from another seat in the South.

Rahul's Trip Is Confusing

Rahul's Yatra 2.0 has been paused for the duration of his sojourn. This after it hit a crescendo with Rahul being accompanied by Samajwadi Party's (SP) Akhilesh Yadav in Agra, in what many saw as the highest point of the march.

Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee shunned the Yatra in West Bengal; her government didn't even extend the usual courtesies, something even a hostile BJP regime in Assam had not shied from. Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav drove Rahul's Jeep on the last day in Bihar, while Akhilesh rescinded his promise to join as Rahul entered Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka Vadra, too, stayed away initially, citing health issues. Over the past weekend though, having successfully negotiated seat-sharing deals with Akhilesh, she joined the Yatra in Moradabad. And Akhilesh followed suit in Agra.

With Rahul flying overseas now, his party members may be left wondering about his seriousness towards preparing for that battle royal called the Lok Sabha election, the dates for which are scheduled to be announced in the coming weeks.

The Tashkent Visit

Back in October's state elections last year, when the Congress was defending its incumbency in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and trying to regain power in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi's sudden flight to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, had stumped his supporters. No reason was assigned for this air dash in the midst of such a heated poll season. The presence in Tashkent during that very period, of Henry Kissinger and George Soros-linked US strategist Samantha Power, whose credentials as an expert on political instability are well-known, created a buzz.

At Cambridge now, Rahul will confabulate, among others, with his Chicago-based mentor Sam Pitroda, who, a day before the Republic Day had addressed a virtual press conference to question the credibility of India's election machinery (during which he brushed aside a question on Congress wins in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka state polls).

Indira Gandhi's 'Foreign Hand' Obsession, And The Irony

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was obsessed with her suspicions of a threat from a 'foreign hand'. Soon after her March 1971 election win, which was refurbished by her dismantling of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh, Gandhi had begun fearing a destabilisation engineered by a 'foreign hand'. The overthrow of the popularly elected regime of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 accentuated those fears, and so did the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on August 15, 1975. Against this background, her grandson's frequent powwow today on foreign soil with experts on political instability is ironic.

The despair evident in the Opposition ranks on the eve of the general elections this year is unprecedented. Seat-sharing talks have been running into hurdles, with many regional parties intent on showing the Congress its place in their respective turfs. In effect, by belittling the Congress, the I.N.D.I.A bloc parties are, in a way, effectively fulfilling the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) task of shaping a 'Congress-mukt Bharat'.

AAP Seems To Be The Prime Gainer

So far, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seems to have emerged as the prime gainer in the alliance-making exercises that Nitish Kumar initiated in June, when the Opposition had been upbeat over the Congress's win in Karnataka. The Congress, in turn, had hoped to emerge stronger in October. But its rout weakened its own position as well as jeopardised the I.N.D.I.A bloc's unity pitch.

At the very first conclave in Patna in June last year, the AAP tried to set the agenda by insisting that opposition parties commit themselves to opposing the Delhi Services Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The Congress's refusal to fall in line saw Arvind Kejriwal leave Patna in a huff. The Congress later rescinded, while the AAP's opposition to the bill was ignored in Parliament. The BJP did ultimately have its way, but the AAP gained on the political front after having made opposition parties accept its agenda.

Having ousted Congress in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha poll in 2022 and wrested from it the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat in a by-poll in April 2023, after bamboozling the Grand Old Party on the Delhi Services Bill, the AAP naturally felt emboldened. This is evident from the skewed seat-sharing pact it has struck with the Congress for 2024.

Congress's Spirit Of Accommodation

In Punjab, even though the Congress won eight of the 13 seats in 2019, the AAP has decided to fight alone. In Delhi, where the AAP, in fact, lost its deposits in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and finished third behind Congress in all seven seats, it has commanded larger share of four sats, offering three to the Congress (in 2019, the Congress had polled 22% votes in Delhi, against the AAP's 17%).

By conceding Bharuch in Gujarat, a seat once held by Ahmed Patel, the Congress has perhaps signalled its spirit of accommodation. It has also conceded Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh to the SP in order to get 17 of the 21 seats it sought in Uttar Pradesh.

Based on their vote shares and footprint, the Election Commission recognises seven parties as 'national parties': the BJP, the Congress, the TMC, the AAP, the CPI (Marxist), the Bahujan Samaj Party and the National People's Party (NPP) of Conrad Sangma, which besides ruling Meghalaya has a presence in the Vidhan Sabhas of some Northeastern states. The BSP is facing a flood of defections and its place in this list may be in jeopardy.

AAP May Be A Window Of Opportunity For Some

The AAP is the only party with governments in more than one state, apart from the BJP and the Congress. By extending its footprint in the Lok Sabha election to Gujarat, Goa, Assam and Haryana, the AAP seeks to consolidate its status as a 'national party'.

Apart from the dwindling Congress and the two Communist parties in the opposition camp, the AAP is also the only party that cannot be labelled as a 'regional party'. With 2029 in sight, Kejriwal, it seems, is positioning the AAP as an alternative to the BJP and the Congress in national politics.

With the growing disenchantment within the Congress, reflected in the Kamal Nath episode, the AAP perhaps provides a window of opportunity for those Congress leaders who wish to cross over but not to the BJP.

Rumours are that Kamal Nath was persuaded to stay in the Congress with the promise that he may be made the Leader of Opposition (LOP) in the 18th Lok Sabha-the highest office the Congress can offer in 2024. In 2014 and 2019, the Congress wasn't even recognised as the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha as it had failed to win the mandatory 10% seats. In 2024, it seems Congress is happy to achieve the LOP status, while Modi gets ready for his third term.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired editor and a public affairs commentator.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.