Cong’s centre alliance pitch in strife with its state politics

A puzzle that’s teasing the party.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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As it sets out to pitch itself as the pivot of the Opposition alliance to challenge the BJP-led regime at the centre in 2024 Lok Sabha polls, Congress has to grapple with a dilemma that isn’t new to alliance-making. The puzzle that’s teasing the party is how to deal with having a two-pronged approach to potential allies at the national level, which are its main adversaries in some regions. 

These are states, or even union territories, where the party finds itself in bipolar or even multi-cornered contests against the allies which it would be wooing for a broader combine at the centre. This is a situation that the party has to work around as it contends with the CPI(M) in Kerala and West Bengal, AAP in Delhi and Punjab, and the TMC in West Bengal as well as  in some states of  the North East.

In the past few weeks, for instance, the party’s Delhi unit has been trying to make up its mind about the tone and tenor of its criticism of the AAP government in Delhi. The party has been sending mixed signals about its stand on the excise policy related corruption charges against the AAP-led government as well as controversy around the alleged extravagant amount of money spent on the renovation of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s official residence. This has to be seen in context of AAP’s presence in the last month’s meeting of opposition parties at Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s residence. This was followed this month by Kharge calling up Kejriwal as a gesture of solidarity and extending support when the Delhi CM was summoned by the CBI for questioning in the excise policy case. But, that’s a line which would be difficult to swallow for all sections of Congress leadership, particularly its Delhi wing.

Even if there was a sense that Kharge’s call mellowed down the strident attacks that the local leadership was directing against the AAP government, all leaders haven’t adhered to the moderation. Ajay Maken, an old party hand in Delhi and former president of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, has been consistently vocal in his criticism of the Kejriwal-led government. In fact, earlier this month, Maken was categorical in asking his party to show no sympathy or support to “individuals like Kejriwal and his associates who face serious corruption charges”.

While the Congress might be attempting to find common ground with potential allies in protesting against the alleged use of central agencies by the central government for targeting the opposition, Maken has alerted the party to what he sees as another danger for the party. “It is important for all political leaders, including those from Congress, to recognize that the money gained through corrupt means by Kejriwal has been used against the Congress party in several states, including Punjab, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Delhi.” 

A few days later Maken was equally unsparing in berating the AAP government for the alleged extravagance in the renovation of the chief minister’s bungalow. This time, however, his critical scrutiny was complemented by Pawan Khera, the national head of the media wing of the Congress. The critical attack on the AAP government led by senior Delhi Congress leaders like Ajay Maken, or its current Delhi unit chief Anil Chaudhary, mirrors a late realisation by the party’s local leadership that it has been ceding the principal opposition space in Delhi to the BJP despite being the party which headed the last non-AAP government in the state till 2013.

 The local unit doesn’t want to be seen as soft on Delhi government’s failings and allegations of corruption. The local leadership of the party is keen on grabbing the chance of confronting the AAP government on issues of public probity and financial propriety, one the key planks on which AAP entered electoral politics. Leaders like Maken are also willing to dispel the perception that Congress inaction in Delhi of late has aided AAP’s electoral performance in the last two Assembly polls. That might be one of the reasons that they don’t see a restrained tone as an option while taking on AAP in the state. They see a softer stance as a recipe for their irrelevance in Delhi politics, and the party’s gradual relegation as a spent force in the Assembly. This, they reckon, shouldn’t be the trajectory for a party in Delhi, where only a decade ago it was voted to power third time consecutively.

In the national context, Congress is well aware of the alarm Maken raised in a different tone: parties like AAP or TMC have been expanding at its expense. While its default position as the principal challenger to the BJP in the national opposition space has stiff competition from an array of parties now, even its existence as a pivot of broader alliance of the opposition can’t be taken for granted. 

A number of parties in the opposition are largely pointing towards two forms of possible alliances. The first set, mostly regional parties like JDU, RJD, DMK, SP, JD-S, and a few more, is likely to tilt towards giving Congress a key role in such an alliance and attach some pre-poll and post-poll conditions to it. But, the second set of parties seeking allies are mostly vying for a first-mover role in usurping the national challenger space. That implies denying the Congress any role in their combine. These mostly include regional forces with fledgling ambitions in national politics like the AAP, TMC and Bharat Rashtra Samithi. Even if their political sway is limited to a state or two, they would sniff at a chance to sneak into a national oppositional space that is now devoid of a dominant presence. 

In doing so, these parties aim to deny the default primacy to the Congress as the nucleus of the challenge to the BJP-led regime at the centre. Congress, in its attempt to stitch a broader alliance, would be keen on persuading them to see the more immediate electoral challenge. Given the complex adversary-allies configuration of party rivalries across the country, such calls for solidarity are easier made than realised on the ground. As the recent divergent tone struck by Congress’s Delhi unit suggests, the party’s playbook of broader  alliance-making has to be alert to how it will impact the party's revival in places where terms of political contest are different.  

Also see
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article imageCan Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra revive the Congress alliance’s fortunes in Maharashtra?
article imageReporters Without Orders Ep 249: The 2022 mandate and road to 2024


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