THE CHASE BEGINS

In a typical hide n’ seek game, amongst the most likely alliances for 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it is who blinks first, forgoes the cherry.

Anil Anand

There is nothing new when formation of alliances among political parties gets stuck in the crossfire of ego-hassles, accompanied by crass blackmailing tactics by would be friends. So much so that running each other down with the prime objective of hiking demand for share in seat allocation is a normal affair. Therefore the proposed ‘mahaghatbandhan’ of the non-BJP political parties with a greater focus on Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Party-Congress trying to come together in electorally significant Uttar Pradesh, sending conflicting signals, is no exception. But it still has different connotations.

Would the Congress be part of the grand alliance in UP to be dominated by SP-BSP combine or not? This question is central to the ‘Mahaghatbandhan’ taking shape on pan-India basis as the leaders of the three parties are currently testing each others’ nerves with Congress at the receiving end. Is the Congress truly out of contention from SP-BSP-led combine as the leaders of the two parties Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav make the countrymen believe? The question gets mired in deep quagmire when leaders of the two parties other than their heads subsequently stated that there is still no finality on the grand alliance in UP.

So where does the Congress go from here? Should it wait for a final word from SP-BSP top brass or should it harp on what is being termed as plan-B? In this context two recent developments make an interesting reading from the Congress’ context. It is another matter both the developments are on the contrarian track rather than clearing mist on the fate of the over a century old party in UP and elsewhere.

It was few days after SP and BSP tried to lay the counters of an electoral alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi surprised political circles by hinting that his party is ready to fight elections alone in UP. He made this significant observation in an interview to a foreign newspaper.
“There were very interesting things the party can do in UP. The Congress idea is very powerful for the state. So, we are very confident of our ability in Uttar Pradesh and we will surprise people,” he was quoted as saying. It gives a fair indication that Congress under young Rahul was not sitting ideal and seemed to be not only toying with the idea of going alone in UP but is on course to working out a plan-B that extends beyond the state. In this context his comments are the first and a significant indication of what the party is thinking in terms of its course of action in UP.

In between another significant development which had more optical value in the current scenario took place and almost went unnoticed in the hallowed Central Hall of Parliament. On the last day of Winter Session of Lok Sabha, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi quietly walked into the Hall with her prying eyes looking for something. After chance encounter with her nephew and BJP MP, Varun Feroze Gandhi who paid his respects to her which she quietly acknowledged and in all humility, Sonia was guided by an accompanying Congress MP towards the person she was looking for.

For a while Sonia was face-to-face with SP chief and former UP chief minister’s MP wife Dimple Yadav though for a fraction of a minute. After quietly exchanging pleasantries, the meeting ended with Sonia handing over something to Dimple and quickly walking back. On the face of it there is nothing unusual as such meetings between political adversaries do take place in the Central Hall and sometimes in full public view. But Sonia-Dimple brief encounter, coming in the midst of alliance talks, cannot be brushed aside.

The friendship of Rahul and Akhilesh has been well-known which blossomed ahead of UP assembly elections but paled into insignificance primarily after dismal failure of the SP-Congress alliance. Sonia walking up to the Samajwadi Party ‘bahu’ strongly reflected that the Congress and SP’s first families were in touch with each other at different levels. Notwithstanding the fact that a final word is still to come on whether SP and BSP will give an honourable accommodation to Congress moving beyond leaving two seats of Amethi and Rai Barelli for the latter, the Congress is not leaving anything to chance and is working on a plan-B and that is to go it alone, if need be, on the national level.

This is what some within the party describe as the “fallback plan” for UP which, if need arose, could be extended to other states where the regional satraps refused to honourably accommodate Congress.

The newly gained confidence of the Congress flows from the party’s recent electoral victories, though not convincing barring Chattisgarh, in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But these victories seemed to have come at the right time just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections giving the party much needed morale booster at the same dealing a deadly blow to BJP. Unlike in the past the Congress top-brass is not ready to sit-back and wait but want the party to be “battle ready”. Initially, the party is mulling over preparing to field candidates in at least 30 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats of UP and leaving the rest to prevent splitting of votes that would ensure BJP’s victory.

This is a contingency plan in case the SP-BSP remained adamant on going beyond allocating two seats to Congress, a party source said. And the idea behind this preparedness is not to be suddenly taken by surprise at the last hour by our prospective allies, he said. The Congress plan-B for UP is based on the premise that the party had won 22 seats in the state in 2009 and the party would expect to contest that number again. In the event of SP-BSP not agreeing to this position, the party will have to carve out its own space. This, of course, comes, with a cautionary note, “We are determined to stitch an alliance and even play second fiddle to the major parties. But we can’t surrender our interests completely.”

Similar precautionary planning is also being done in respect of other states as well. The Congress poll strategist are learnt to have instructed their state leaders to identify candidates for all the seats in their respective states and at the same time asked the PCC chiefs and AICC general secretaries in charge of the respective states to furnish lists of office-bearers from block and booth levels to upwards. Series of preparatory meetings have already been held in this connection as Congress is not ready to leave anything to chance this time around. After all it is going to be a do or die battle and the one for political survival.