There has been a flurry of activity to cobble up an anti-BJP ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance ). The exercise is not unprecedented either in its intention or scope. Only that this time around it’s the regional players who are taking the lead in firming up such a pan-India coalition of ‘like-minded’ parties. These regional players like Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu or Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee are not averse to taking Congress on board, not as a dominant partner but as an entity willing to subsume its ambitions under the overarching goals of the alliance.
Naidu’s recent meeting with TMC supremo did not stand out for the distance that Naidu had to cover to reach Kolkata. What stood out were the words from Mamata after the meeting that hinted at the underlying resolve of regional players not to allow national partners to have an overwhelming presence in the 'Mahagathbandhan'. On the question of who shall be the prime ministerial face of such a grand alliance, Mamata quipped that “everybody is the face of ‘Mahagathbandhan'.’”
It is hard to construe whether Mamata made this remark keeping Congress president Rahul Gandhi in mind. But it shall be vain to think otherwise. That also does not mean Mamata herself covets the post. The probability might be high but she is only making sure the post of the Prime Minister remains open in the event of the 'Mahagathbandhan' managing to halt the Modi juggernaut in 2019.
Mamata has revealed the blueprint for the coalition. Rewind to Karnataka Assembly verdict when Congress struck up a post-poll alliance with Janata Dal (Secular). To keep BJP at bay, Rahul offered the CM post to JD(S)’s HD Kumaraswamy despite the Congress having won twice as many seats as the JD(S). Mamata’s oblique reference to the Congress at the opposition show of unity then was unambiguous. The “regional fronts and regional partners have a very important role to play,” she had then remarked.
Even Naidu endorsed Mamata’s line in Kolkata when he said they were all senior politicians, ‘more senior than Modi.’ His no-nonsense remark indicates Rahul’s perceived lower standing in the political hierarchy the 'Mahagathbandhan' was trying to construct. It also shows a mirror to the Congress’s present numerical strength in the Lok Sabha. One thing is clear: The alliance partners shall prefer to choose the joint opposition PM face by consensus rather than allow a single party’s writ to run through. And that there could be several contenders to choose from.
The Congress’s 2014 drubbing at the hands of Modi’s BJP had brought it almost down to its knees. The Congress could garner just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, barely ahead of strong regional players like the AIADMK (37 seats) and TMC (34 seats).
Rahul is trying hard to put the electoral failures behind him but his real leadership test shall be in the three Hindi-belt states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the grand old party is pitted against arch-rival BJP. If shall be a tour de force for him if he manages to wrest these states from the BJP, which is carrying the baggage of anti-incumbency.
But for now, he certainly seemed to have missed the bus of a possible electoral alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in Chhattisgarh and MP. This may prove crucial to the poll outcome. Mayawati was among the first leaders Naidu met before he called on Rahul and Mamata for talks on grand alliance.
The emerging template of 'Mahagathbandhan' already includes signatures of parties such as TDP, DMK, TC, SP, BSP, NCP and NC. Most of these parties have either had a pronounced anti-Congressism in-built into their DNA or are breakaway factions of the Congress who now are strong players in their respective states and only want to expand bases in other states, where the Congress will have to accommodate them.
Rahul’s twin challenge is not only to resurrect the Congress but also to prove that his anti-BJP credentials were not vacuous chest-thumping. If he loses to BJP in these three states, he stands to forfeit his ground to regional players in the 'Mahagathbandhan'. A sweep in these three states will only lift his acceptability quotient that much. His stocks among opposition parties might soar. To be counted as a serious contender, Rahul will have to bounce back in the crucial Hindi belt states in which the Congress has presence – a feat unlikely without the strategic support of regional outfits. It shall be a tightrope walk in terms of numbers and alliances.