For the Congress which lost two key allies — and one minor one — in the last 12 months, a key element in its electoral strategy for the general elections that are now less than a year away, will be whether it should to woo back old friends or find new ones to replace them — or, in some cases, be brave and go it alone.
The departure of West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham and the MIM in Andhra Pradesh has left the Congress, and the UPA, weaker. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party may have bailed out the ruling UPA on the floor of Parliament on more than one occasion, but this cannot in any way help the Congress improve its performance in Uttar Pradesh.
In West Bengal, when the party fought in alliance with the Trinamool Congress in 2009, the two won 25 of the 42 LS seats, six of which went to the Congress. The Congress’ current assessment is that if the two parties contest separately, the Trinamool stands to lose half a dozen seats to the Left Front in the State, but that its own score will remain the same. It is therefore not keen to renew the relationship, even though West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee wants to contest the polls together. The Congress also feels the State’s 30 per cent Muslim vote will ensure that the Trinamool does not join the NDA, even though it has been a part of it in the past. “And if she moves closer to the BJP,” a party general secretary said, “it can only help us.”
Looking for new partner in TN
In Tamil Nadu, however, the Congress -- which won eight LS seats in 2009 in alliance with the DMK that took 18 – is desperately looking for a partner. “We need a partner in Tamil Nadu,” a senior party functionary told The Hindu, “but it will be decided at the last moment.” Since making up with the DMK looks unlikely right now, and a tie-up with the AIADMK appears impossible, given the warm relations between that party’s leader, Jayalalithaa and the BJP, the Congress, he said, is looking at smaller parties such as the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, led by actor Vijaykanth, and the PMK, to form a “sort of Third Front” in the State.
If the Congress is keen to find a new ally in Tamil Nadu, it is in a quandary in Bihar, where it contested alone in 2009, winning just two of the state’s 40 seats. The party is now divided between those who would like to ally with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (parties that were part of UPA One and now support the government from the outside) and those who want to hold out to see whether Janata Dal (U) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will break with the BJP, and tie up with him. Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, party sources say, is keener on Mr. Kumar. So even though both Mr. Lalu Prasad and Mr. Paswan were seated on the dais at the UPA’s ninth anniversary celebrations on Wednesday, there is no certainty that there will be a pact with them.
Recently, Congress spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed maintained that his party was still in “no mood” to ally with any party for the next elections there as it was “fully engaged” in expanding its base in Bihar against Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. “We have an equal distance from both the parties. We are trying to find our own path,” he said.
Indeed, in the coming Maharajgunj by-election in Bihar, the Congress is testing its own strength, even as the Planning Commission continues to lend a sympathetic ear to Mr. Kumar on granting special status to Bihar.
Finally, in Jharkhand, it looks certain that the Congress will ally with one of the two Jharkhand parties: party sources say that forming a government in alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in the State, currently under President’s Rule, looks a distinct possibility. This would pave the way for a tie-up with the JMM in the Lok Sabha elections next year.
As for Andhra Pradesh, the Congress is still undecided on whether or not to create Telangana: a vocal section of the Congress leadership seems to be veering around to the view that politically, it would not be the right thing to do, even if a new State could provide short-term electoral gains. The Congress is currently closely watching the YSR Congress: there appears to be a sense that earlier reports that had suggested it would sweep the Andhra region may not be that correct. In any case, the Congress feels that in the post-election situation, the YSR Congress will support a UPA rather than an NDA government.
Meanwhile, the high-powered group set up last year under the chairmanship of Defence Minister A.K. Antony on alliances has yet to complete its discussions. But since the countdown for 2014 has begun, the group will have to come to its conclusions sooner rather than later.