NEWS ANALYSIS Despite Rahul’s decision, UPA constituents do not feel reassured of alliance’s future
If the Congress was able to surmount its current vulnerability and choose its own candidates for the presidential and vice-presidential elections — Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari — who are likely to win by sizeable margins, the events of the last few days have demonstrated that its troubles are far from over. The announcement by Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent, that he is ready to take on a larger responsibility in the party or government or — as a senior functionary indicated, in both — does not appear to have encouraged the Congress allies to believe that the downward spiral of the United Progressive Alliance will be halted anytime soon.
How else does one read the revolt by the Nationalist Congress Party, for long considered the most reliable ally? In his letter offering his resignation from the Cabinet to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, NCP leader Sharad Pawar wrote, “We are a small party. It doesn’t confer stature or respectability, so we need to build for future. Therefore, we need to devote more time to build up our party for future.” The message: the NCP does not see much future in remaining in an alliance that is headed nowhere.
Echoing that sentiment in Kolkata on Saturday as Trinamool Congress workers massed on the Brigade Parade grounds — as they do every year this day — to pay homage to 18 party workers who were killed in a 1993 police firing, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said her party might decide to go it alone in the 2014 general elections.
Ms. Banerjee’s statement was not unexpected, as she has been smarting ever since she was forced to eat her words and vote for Mr. Mukherjee on July 19. But this assertion carried more political weight as it came 48 hours after the NCP announced it was quitting the Central government to protest against the Congress’ Big Brother attitude and that it would, from now on, support the UPA from outside unless its grievances were addressed.
For Ms. Banerjee, who was driven up the wall after the Congress-led UPA — despite her protests — announced that Mr. Mukherjee would be its presidential nominee, the NCP’s action has served to end her isolation.
For the Congress, the Trinamool was already a headache. Now, with the NCP opening up the western front and reports from that camp suggesting that there is a range of issues that is bothering the party — from giving the NCP chief the status his seniority deserves to ending the policy paralysis at the Centre to its unhappiness at the way its party members are being treated in Maharashtra — the problems of the ruling party have only grown. All this also comes in the wake of the formation in 2011 of the breakaway YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, which demonstrated its strength when it won 16 of the 18 Assembly seats in the recent by-elections.
Over the years, the Congress’ intolerance of regional satraps and concentration of power — as far as possible in the Gandhi-Nehru Family — have led to desertions from its ranks. On January 1, 1998, Ms. Banerjee, after two decades in the party, broke away to form the Trinamool; the following year, after Mr. Pawar and a group were expelled for challenging Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) came into being. And last year, in the wake of the Congress leadership refusing to anoint Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh after his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy tragically died in a helicopter crash in 2009, the YSR Congress was born.
After Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969, the faction owing allegiance to her emerged as the real Congress, and the regional satraps were cast aside. As long as she looked invincible, she held the reins of the party, winning a magnificent victory in 1971, but as economic problems mounted and the opposition banded together behind Jayaprakash Narayan, a section of the Congress deserted her and she faced defeat in 1977. Again, as Rajiv Gandhi’s government got embroiled in a series of financial scandals, Vishwanath Pratap Singh left the Congress to lead a group of opposition parties that trounced it in 1989. And after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s five-year tenure as Prime Minister ended in 1996, the Congress did not recover till 2004 when it returned to power at the head of the UPA, with Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s entry as Congress president in 1998 helping the party recover lost ground.
Today, the eight-year-old UPA government is looking fragile — and the allies are looking at their own futures. The Congress has to address the problems that afflict the government and party, even as it makes its allies feel they are part of the family — starting with those who are part of the greater Congress parivar. The countdown to 2014 has begun.