On a wing and a prayer

The Congress’ biggest worry is how to convince Rahul Gandhi that he has grown ‘big’ enough to take up prime ministership.

Going by the calendar, the Lok Sabha elections are a good 14 months away, but the political rhetoric cascading from across the political spectrum makes it clear that almost everybody is in a hurry to bring the calendar forward by a few notches. With the UPA government reduced to a hopeless minority after the withdrawal of the DMK from both the government and the coalition, it only requires a minor ‘mishap’ for the whole edifice to crumble and for prime minister Manmohan Singh’s government to tumble out of office.

When Mulayam Singh Yadav starts describing L K Advani as ‘the tallest leader in the country’ who ‘never utters a lie’ and another SP leader describes NDA under Vajpayee as ‘a much better coalition than the UPA’ or when Nitish Kumar hints at supporting the Congress as long as his state Bihar gets a special status and more funds, you instinctively know that it is the beginning of an open season for political realignment.

It may take some time for the alliances to crystalise, the calculations to be worked out and the plans to be firmed up, but the dynamics of politics once set in motion cannot be controlled by any single party and it will find its own trigger, either on purpose or accidentally, taking most leaders by surprise.

Remember it took an innocuous incident of two constables being posted on ‘security duty’ outside Rajiv Gandhi’s residence—who were accused of spying —that brought down the Chandra Sekhar government in 1991?

After the unexpectedly sudden withdrawal of the DMK from the UPA, the Congress has become acutely aware that it is now forced to walk with two unpredictable ‘stilts’ provided by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party. Both the SP and the BSP nurse a long-standing grouse against the Congress for being used when convenient, but being treated as a ‘pariah’ when it came to sharing power.

Over the last nine years that the UPA has been in office, both the SP and the BSP have bailed out the government umpteen times, may be, for their own reasons. Now that the elections are not far away and the Congress has become more vulnerable than ever, either one of them with 22 and 21 MPs respectively, can pull the government down and force an early election if they sense an electoral advantage.

As Mulayam Singh has started talking about reviving the Third Front, which does not have to depend on either the Congress or the BJP, and making no secret of his ambition to become the prime minister, besides describing the Congress as a party of ‘cheats,’ the ruling dispensation now knows that it is dependent on an ‘ally’ who is wholly unpredictable. Same is the case with Mayawati, but the only point of relief for the Congress is that Mayawati and Mulayam eye each other’s moves with suspicion and will never go together.

Fluid situation

But in a fluid situation like this nothing can be taken for granted. Hence, the Congress has begun to woo Nitish Kumar with a bail-out package for Bihar, which has been his single-point demand for over five years. Nitish with his 20 MPs will not only be a good insurance for this government, but a powerful potential ally in the coming Lok Sabha elections as well. If it succeeds in luring Nitish to its fold, the Congress will not only deliver a body blow to the BJP-led NDA, but can count on picking up some crucial seats in Bihar, which has consistently ignored the Congress in the last few elections.

Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress which walked out of the UPA last September over the issue of opening retail trade to FDI, has hinted at the possibility of reconciliation with the Congress ‘if certain conditions are met.’ The Congress would be wary of readmitting her to the UPA so soon, but then she is another useful ‘third party insurance’ for the present and whose support will be required to garner some seats in West Bengal and boost the overall kitty of the Congress.

The immediate task before the Congress will be to win the Assembly elections in Karnataka scheduled for May 5 and regain its pre-eminent position in a state which had been a Congress stronghold for decades. After the S M Krishna government lost power in 2004, paving the way for disastrous experiments in coalition governments, the Congress came up with a reasonably good performance in 2009 getting 35.93 per cent of votes as against BJP’s 33.13 per cent. But the BJP, with its support base better concentrated, managed to come to power on its own for the first time in a southern state with 110 seats in its favour to Congress’ 80. In five years since then, the BJP has committed Harakiri and is ready to hand over the state back to the Congress on a platter.

More than winning the Assembly polls, the Congress will be eyeing a good chunk of 28 Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka, 19 of which are currently with the BJP. Since Andhra Pradesh, which sent the largest number of Congress MPs in the last two elections, is precariously placed this time thanks to YSR Congress Party and the Telengana issue, Karnataka could offer a valuable buffer, especially at the expense of the BJP.

The Congress’ biggest worry at the moment is how to convince Rahul Gandhi that he has grown ‘big’ enough to take up prime ministership, if the party is in a position to stake a claim after the next Lok Sabha elections. Rahul’s mentor, the ‘diggy’ Raja is doing his best to shoe away the other pretenders to the throne, but in the end, it will really boil down whether the Congress will manage to get enough seats for Rahul to feel comfortable in the PM’s chair. What will be his ‘comfort level’ is the big question.

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