By Nitya Chakraborty
The Congress is holding its three-day plenary session at Raipur beginning February 24. This conclave is going to be crucial for the party in framing its strategy for the coming Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2024 that are barely 13 months away. In the current round of the state assembly elections in 2023, the Congress has taken a cavalier attitude to the three northeastern states – Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland – where polling will be over by February 27.The three state Congress units are upset that the party high command has let them down by not offering the much-needed assistance in terms of resources, including cash and organisational support.
The party leadership should have held the plenary in March first week after the polls in the NE states and much before the Karnataka assembly elections scheduled in April-May this year. The neglect of campaigning in these three states is not a good augury for the Congress. The party could have performed much better if the state units got the required assistance and senior leaders like Rahul Gandhi had taken part in the campaigning. Now, the polls are over in Tripura [February 16] and the two other states will go to polls on February 27, without any participation by central leaders, as they all are busy with the upcoming plenary session.
The Congress has to focus now on the remaining six states going to polls in 2023. The most important of them is Karnataka right now as this is the state where the Congress has the potential to defeat the BJP on its own strength, even though there is no electoral understanding with the JD(S). The ground situation in Karnataka has slipped away from the BJP in the last few weeks. The Congress cadres are now rejuvenated after the success of Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the joint campaigning by the two factional leaders, S Siddaramaiah and D K Shivkumar, has boosted their confidence further.
In the recent pre-plenary press conference, senior Congress leaders have underlined their eagerness in building up the broadest unity of anti-BJP parties. As a follow-up, the party should open a dialogue with the JD(S) for an electoral understanding. Senior opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar can help facilitate the process. A big defeat for the BJP in Karnataka polls would likely trigger a new momentum which should help the Congress in the three other key states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh —to defeat BJP comfortably. If somehow, the BJP is able to scrape through in Karnataka polls, it will have a demoralising impact on the Congress in other states. So the defeat of the BJP in Karnataka assembly polls is of crucial importance to the whole of the non-BJP opposition, and not just the Congress.
Right now, all attention of the Congress party should be on Karnataka and the plenary should work out its strategy accordingly. Once the BJP can be defeated in Karnataka, the Congress will find it easier in the states where it is the main party taking on the BJP. In Telangana, the main party fighting the BJP will be the BRS of K Chandrasekhar Rao. The Congress has to fight in that state with both the BJP and the BRS. In Mizoram, the Congress has to look for alliance with the non-NDA regional parties of the state.
Another extremely important matter to carefully consider during the plenary session should be the approach towards other opposition parties ready to fight the BJP jointly in the coming Lok Sabha elections. It is a fact that the Congress is the strongest non-BJP party even now among the opposition, despite its decline over the last nine years. But still, in the interest of the grand old party itself, the Congress leadership has to be pragmatic in allowing the leading regional parties who are fighting the BJP to be the bigger electoral partner in their respective states, for the sake of building stronger alliances.
For the Congress, the best course will be to follow a three-point strategy regarding the non-BJP opposition parties. Right now, there are model alliances in Bihar and Tamil Nadu, which effectively demonstrate how the anti-BJP parties can be united under one umbrella. Similarly, in Kerala, the 20 seats will be divided between the CPIM-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led front. So, the seats will be with the anti-BJP parties, despite fighting between the fronts. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress is the main contender against the BJP both within the state and in the next Lok Sabha polls, wherein the TMC is expected to do better than the last time. Whatever TMC gains, will be a loss to the BJP, and that will belong to the opposition front.
In order to make the opposition unity broader and sustainable, two issues should be taken into account by the Congress as also the joint opposition. First, the matter of the prime ministerial face should be kept open till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections results are out. The post-election scenario will determine the PM position, on the basis of the respective strengths of the parties, including the Congress. Apart, there cannot be a set-in-stone pre-poll alliance of the opposition parties against the BJP, and a flexible approach is need of the hour. Efforts should be made for maximum understanding to avert any division of non-BJP votes. Although, political reality on the ground might lead to some electoral contestation among the non-BJP parties in individual states, but that should not prevent the anti-BJP opposition parties to join hands after the 2024 polls, in case of a hung Lok Sabha.
In sum, the strategy should be the main non-BJP opposition party in every state will be the leader in that state in taking the fight to the BJP, and it can choose allies, if needed. As per this, the Congress will be the decider in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and also in Assam. Similarly, RJD will be the decider in Bihar, DMK in Tamil Nadu, where the model fronts are continuing. TMC will fight on its own in Bengal. The Left Democratic Front and the UDF will be fighting as usual in Kerala.
Andhra Pradesh and Odisha are dominated by the regional parties who have maintained distance from the anti-BJP opposition. But these parties are feeling the heat from the BJP and if the BJP becomes a minority after the Lok Sabha polls, these two parties may extend support to the non-BJP alliance provided they get the due confidence. In Telangana, BRS will fight both the Congress and the BJP, but there are chances that the BRS will support a non-BJP government after the elections. Similarly AAP will move alone and it will fight the Congress in the states. Only in the post poll situation, AAP can be persuaded to join the non-BJP front.
For Congress, the primary task at the Raipur plenary should be to ensure that optimum mobilization of party resources and cadres are made to ensure victory of the party in the state polls, where it is the main contender taking on the BJP. Victory in Karnataka and the three other states in the assembly polls this year could set the pace for 2024 Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress comes out successful in at least 120 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, then automatically, the party can vie for leadership position in the event of a hung parliament. Much like in the event of the 2004 elections, the other opposition parties would have no problem in supporting a Congress-led government at the centre in 2024 as well. The Congress should move fast and steady after the Raipur session to match the killer instinct shown by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo in Indian election battle. (IPA Service)