Sorry Rahul, your PM dream has just taken a beating

By offering unconditional support to JDS in Karnataka, Congress high command has only whetted the appetite of regional satraps to demand a larger chunk of the political pie and play hardball with Congress for their own prime ministerial ambitions

India’s Congress party President Rahul Gandhi.

It’s par for the course.

Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) forming a post-poll alliance in Karnataka, to stake claim to government formation, is all but natural. Given the multi-party democracy that India has and in view of its first-past-the-post order, such marriages of convenience and alliances of opportunism are as normal as the electorate coming up with a fractured verdict. And what’s good for the goose cannot be bad for the gander, right? If India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) post-poll machinations and jockeying for power earlier in Goa and Manipur were fair enough, then the same holds true for the Congress-JDS combine in Karnataka now.

However, there is a flip side to this story – particularly so far as the Congress party, India’s principal opposition entity, is concerned. By throwing the door open to a regional party for a post-poll alliance and by offering unconditional support to it, Congress has delivered this message loud and clear that it is ready to play second fiddle to regional parties and power-brokers at the national level come the 2019 general elections. In a bid to keep BJP out of power, what the Congress has already conceded is collateral damage so far as its stake in national politics is concerned. And with that, perhaps, a spanner has been thrown in the works of party president Rahul Gandhi’s prime ministerial ambitions.

In the run-up to the Karnataka assembly elections, Rahul was quite unequivocal in admitting that yes, he was indeed ready to take up the responsibility as and when it should come his way. Given a growing disenchantment over four-years of BJP rule at the Centre and a perceived waning of the ‘Modi magic’ pan-India, a Congress resurgence is very much on the cards, particularly in northern and western India. From that perspective, any electoral gain for the Congress at the national level is likely to interpret itself as accrued political dividends to Rahul’s prime ministerial hopes.

Watch: The Karnataka elections are over. Here’s what the results mean for #India in 2019.

However, it was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who first sounded a caveat to India’s oldest political party, saying that Congress is welcome to be a part of any anti-BJP, secular front at the Centre, provided India’s GOP is ready to accept the reality that Rahul cannot or should not be an automatic choice for prime minister. Should Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) win a majority of the 42 parliamentary seats on offer from Bengal in 2019, the diminutive leader and TMC are likely to play a crucial role in any anti-BJP alliance at the Centre.

Similarly, a Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party tie-up in Uttar Pradesh, a resurgent Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, a N. Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh can all play vital roles in a non-BJP front at the Centre. Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao has already had preliminary talks with Mamata on a national anti-BJP front. Now add to that matrix an H.D. Deve Gowda in Karnataka and what we have is a veritable mix of regional satraps who have their own political equations and ambitions to further and which need not necessarily be in keeping with the Congress party’s own political interests and priorities.

Given such a scenario, Congress may find it increasingly difficult to push ahead with Rahul as a consensus candidate for prime minister from an anti-BJP combine in 2019. While coalition politics is nothing new to Congress — having successfully steered two successive United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s at the Centre in 2004 and 2008 — it is the absence of a party president like Sonia Gandhi, an astute trouble-shooter like Pranab Mukherjee, and a relatively non-political personality with prime ministerial credentials like Manmohan Singh that are likely to hurt the party badly when it comes to negotiating the terms of a universally acceptable common minimum programme with other secular parties in New Delhi.

Both, in 2004 and 2008, it was relatively easy for the Congress high command to push ahead with its own prime ministerial candidate among its alliance partners because of two very critical factors: Firstly, it was Sonia’s masterstroke to rule herself out of the race and instead pitch a non-controversial, political lightweight such as Manmohan for the top job. None of the UPA constituents could have had an issue with someone as apolitical as Manmohan for PM. Secondly, Sonia herself was the glue that could influence disparate elements such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to share the UPA platform and help forge an anti-BJP coalition government at the Centre. This time around, the Congress is bound to be hobbled by Sonia’s failing health, her gradual slipping away from active politics, and also the fact that Rahul’s acceptability as an alliance leader beyond the Congress fold still remains suspect and debatable.

True, Congress may help JDS form the next government in Karnataka, but there’s still no escaping from the harsh reality that it has lost two crucial state elections since Rahul was anointed as party president: Gujarat and Karnataka, notwithstanding the ‘moral victory’ of a close fight in Gujarat and a couple of byelection wins elsewhere. In Karnataka, the Congress tally is down 43 seats from 2013, while 10 sitting ministers lost the poll, including chief minister Siddaramaiah, who lost one of the two seats that he was contesting from, by 36,000 votes, while he just made it by the skin of the teeth in the other.

These are bare facts that will come back to haunt the party irrespective of whether it can provide a stable government in Karnataka in alliance with a political entity like JDS that was considered its sworn enemy until the other day!

And now, by offering unconditional support to JDS to form the government in Karnataka, the Congress high command has only further whetted the appetite of the regional bigwigs to demand a larger chunk of the political pie and play hardball with the Congress for their own prime ministerial ambitions as and when they get to sit around the alliance table in 2019.

Congress party’s ‘Mission Karnataka’ has effectively handed a ‘waiting list’ ticket to the fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhi scion for his entry into 7, Race Course Road!
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter: @moumiayush.


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