Cong bid to avert doom in 2014

Poll vault Faced with a probity deficit, the grand old party struggles to steer clear as time ticks away

Cong bid to avert doom in 2014

Struggling to shift the focus of public discourse away from the endless stream of scams which plagued it and the United Progressive Alliance government it leads at the Centre, the Congress party is embarking on a twin agenda to bolster its chances of winning the Lok Sabha elections, barely 10 months away. The two-pronged strategy is to continue its stress on “aam aadmi” through welfare programmes and to take on rival Bharatiya Janata Party and its presumptive prime minister candidate Narendra Modi by engaging them in the secular-communal debate.

The UPA is looking at a third successive bid for government formation. It knows its drawback will be fighting a build-up of anti-incumbency from two terms, compounded by a declining economy, growing unemployment and high inflation, besides the scams. Congress, as the lead UPA partner, naturally needs to be far more creative in not just defending itself but cobbling together a winning coalition for the war ahead.

First, a look at the UPA coalition: in 2004 and 2009 when it faced LS polls, Congress was leading a fairly large group of alliance partners. Now, the UPA is short of two of its biggest allies - Trinamool Congress (with 19 MPs in LS) and DMK (18 MPs) - both of whom deserted the coalition making it look vulnerable. Even smaller partners have quit – Babulal Marandi's Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) from Jharkhand and MIM from Andhra Pradesh, largely for local reasons. Knowing very well that its own prospects, at the moment, are not good vis a vis 2014 polls, Congress is desperately trying to woo other parties, including ex-partners, big and small, to the UPA. It has succeeded in Jharkhand where it joined hands with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) to form the government and is likely to extend the partnership to contest the LS polls. Congress’ overtures to  estranged allies is quite explicit. It went soft on DMK by supporting Kanimozhi, daughter of the regional outfit’s patriarch M Karunanidhi, for the Rajya Sabha seat. This may have well prepared the ground for an alliance in 2014, besides DMK’s support in Parliament on key issues. That leaves the mercurial Mamata Banerjee of TMC. The West Bengal chief minister is right now proving to be a difficult customer; only days ago she remarked Modi and Congress are two faces of the same coin. Still, Congress nurses hopes that Mamata will forge an alliance with it. Also, Congress leaders believe that with close to 30 per cent Muslims in her state, Mamata may not go the Modi-BJP way.

Ally search

Finding new allies could prove tricky for Congress. It could look at Janata Dal (United) in Bihar (in which case it should be prepared to lose long-time ally RJD), the YSR Congress, which is expected to do well in the elections in Andhra Pradesh, and/or TRS in Telangana if the Centre agrees to the separate state demand. The Congress may prefer a pre-poll tie-up with JD(U) and TRS and post-poll with YSR Congress. UPA is of course keeping the Uttar Pradesh satraps – Mulayam Singh Yadav of Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party in good humour. Their support would be needed in case it is in catching distance of power.

Congress has virtually no allies in the big states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh which together account for 162 out of 543 seats in LS.

Pro-poor agenda

As for the two-pronged strategy, the Congress-led UPA, aware that schemes like rural job guarantee, Bharat Nirman or right to education won it the gaddi in 2009,  has already readied the Food Security Programme, direct benefit or cash transfer scheme etc. More may be in the offing in the coming months. The party has decided to give ample publicity to its pro-people programmes by dispatching its leaders to every nook and corner of the country. The party, known to lag behind the BJP in the use of social media, has decided to shed this image and utilise these tools in a big way to reach out to the youth.

Finally, the communal-secular angle to the agenda. Whether it likes it or not, Congress has been dragged straight into the cock-fight with the BJP, more so with Modi, known as a polarising figure. The tit-for-tat jibes between BJP and Congress – or rather Modi and Congress - has almost become an every-day affair and faces the danger of getting overplayed by the time election dates are declared. In this battle of one-upmanship, Modi is setting the agenda and Congress inevitably has  to respond. The party has now realised that it has no option but to take Modi head on, as endorsed by its information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari who said, “Congress must brace for the Modi challenge.”

This, indeed, is a change in strategy as the party had debunked union minister Jairam Ramesh when he recently remarked, “Modi will certainly impose a challenge on us. He represents not just a managerial but an ideological challenge.” The change is an indication of Congress recognising that voter sentiment is either for Modi or against him. Earlier, the party was divided on this issue with one section arguing that a knee-jerk reaction to Modi was allowing him to set the agenda.

Religious polarisation

Both the Congress and the BJP, interestingly, think that polarising on religious lines will help them in the elections. According to one calculation, there are at least 300 seats where the BJP and the Congress will compete or have enough votes to play spoilers. In the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Delhi (total seats - 113), the two national parties have a direct contest where the gain of one will be at the cost of the other. From the point of view of minority Muslim votes, this issue of polarisation may become crucial. According to one estimate, Muslim voters can influence the results in nearly 220 constituencies. In these seats, their number varies from one out of every three voters or 11 to 20 per cent of votes. Thus the importance of polarisation!

Yet, the Congress may change many things in its strategy over the next two months as the grand old party of India braces itself to pick up the gauntlet thrown by the BJP and other parties.

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