By Nitya Chakraborty
The political resolution adopted at the three-day Congress plenary at Raipur last week is marked by pragmatism by the party leadership. Whether in dealing with strategy on alliances with the opposition parties, or in formulating the social justice-driven agendas, the leadership has shown both understanding and vision to take on the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections in 2024. The resolution has shown enough flexibility in tackling the major issues. There are indications that the Congress will stake its claim for the leadership of the entire anti-BJP opposition only after proving its electoral mettle via defeating the BJP in at least four out of six assembly polls in 2023. The Congress is a marginal player in the three northeastern states, where the polls have already been held.
The most important issue on which the Congress delegates, as also the top leadership, have stressed is the imperative of strengthening the party organisation in the states which will be facing assembly polls in 2023 in the second and the third phase. The remaining states are Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. Out of these six states, in two the Congress is the ruling party, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; while in two other, i.e., Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress formed governments after 2018 elections, but the BJP hijacked the elected governments shortly after by organising defections. The Congress has the potential to get back these two significant states this year if the necessary preparations are made to meet the muscle power of the BJP. In Telangana and Mizoram, the Congress has to fight on its own, and its task is to only improve its strength in the assembly.
The political ground reality in early 2023 is that the Congress has to go solo in the coming assembly elections in six states. In Karnataka, there can be negotiations with the JD(S), and if some understanding is reached between the two parties, that will ensure a big defeat for the BJP in the state. It’s looking favourable for the Congress with the saffrons in backfoot electorally due to infighting within the party and rampant corruption of the BJP government. Even if an understanding between the Congress and the JD(S) is not possible before the polls, steps can be taken to form a post-poll alliance in the event of a hung assembly.
Right now, although Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has talked of a total opposition alliance, with the leading role for the Congress party, that may not be practically possible, and that should not be attempted also. The Congress has firm supporters in the opposition camp and with them, the Congress may form a pre Lok Sabha poll alliance. The Congress leadership, it seems has a list of sixteen such parties who are agreeable to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
This front, if it takes shape, is well and good; but it should have complementary relationship with the other non-Congress, non-BJP parties like TMC, BRS and AAP, which will not join the Congress-led front. In fact, except Telangana, there will be no contest between the Congress and any of these parties till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress strategy should be to have only post-poll alliance with these parties on the basis of an alternative programme, like what happened after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
The Left parties — the CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) Liberation, Forward Bloc and RSP —belong to a different category. The Left has been consistently supporting the call of Rahul Gandhi to fight RSS and Sangh Parivar. In post 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress with only 146 seats out of the total of 543 seats in Lok Sabha, could form the government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh, with outside support extended by the 61-member strong Left. The CPI(M) alone had 44 seats in Lok Sabha; CPI(M)’s then general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, played a major role at that time in facilitating the formation of this non-BJP government.
There has been a sea-change in Left’s strength in the last two decades. The Left has now only a total of five seats in the Lok Sabha after 2019 polls—CPI(M)) three and the CPI two. Out of these five seats, four seats, two each by the CPI and the CPI(M), are from Tamil Nadu alone, as part of the DMK-led alliance. The Left has only one seat from Kerala on its own strength. Prospects in 2024 indicate some small improvement in Left seats in Kerala and one or two seats in Bihar to CPI and the CPI(ML) Liberation. Still, the total strength of the Left will be nowhere near its earlier numbers during the last three decades, before 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
A close analysis of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections results and the political developments in the last four years since then show that the BJP can lose a minimum of 100 seats due to its losses in the Hindi heartland, which it swept in the last Lok Sabha elections. This will bring down the BJP seats from the present strength of 303 in Lok Sabha to around 200 seats. If it happens, this means there will be scope for an alternative non-BJP government at the centre.
Who will lead that government will depend on the respective strength of each non-BJP party after the 2024 elections. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar mentioned 100 seats for BJP in the next Lok Sabha polls, but that is too optimistic a figure. Kumar’s predictions are on the basis of a very cozy pre-poll alliance of the opposition parties, which may not fructify when taking into account the uncomfortable ground reality. Any persistent effort to form a total alliance will only jeopardise the prospects of throwing out the Narendra Modi government in 2024 polls.
Rather, the non-BJP opposition should be reconciled to the practical option of one main Congress-led alliance, and a second group of anti-BJP parties like TMC, BRS and AAP, which may not be a part of this Congress-led alliance, but will be available for post-poll arrangement in the event of a hung Lok Sabha. Then, there is the third group, comprising the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh and the BJD in Odisha. These two parties are now staying away from the non-BJP opposition. However, both parties are alert to the attacks from the BJP to their home-turf in the coming assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Accordingly, they will decide their post-2024 poll strategy based on the evolving ground situation.
The same is the case with the regional parties in the Northeast. The tendency of these parties is to ally with the national party, which is ruling at the centre. Right now, most of the regional parties are members of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and they are helping the BJP to become a partner in the ruling combinations in their respective states. The situation will change once the BJP becomes a minority party at the centre and the Congress-led opposition becomes the ruling party.
In sum, the electoral situation before the Lok Sabha polls, now just thirteen months away, is fluid. The opposition, especially the Congress, needs clarity in vision and nuanced approach for navigating the course for talks with the allies and others possible partners in post-poll alliance. The signals from the Raipur plenary are fortunately positive. Congress general secretary K C Venugopal reportedly told a mediaperson that the Congress will automatically get the leadership of opposition, if it gets around 150 seats in 2024 polls. That is the right approach.
The Congress has no inherited right to govern at the centre. The party has to acquire the pole position through its keenly-watched performance in the coming assembly polls. If the Congress is able to defeat the BJP in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly polls, such a favourable momentum will be created that even the recalcitrant TMC will be compelled to say yes, Rahul Gandhi has the true capability to effectively challenge Narendra Modi in the electoral field. Only the Congress organization, through massive mobilization and killer instinct against the BJP, can make that happen. (IPA Service)