'The Congress wants to deprive Modi another term in 2024 and for that they are ready to make any sacrifice.'
If not Narendra Modi, then who?
This question has been the Bharatiya Janata Party's biggest campaign weapon ever since Modi won the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and came back to power with an even bigger majority in 2019.
The fact is, there is not a single political leader in the Opposition who can counter Modi's popularity at a pan-India level.
Interim Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Friday, August 20, held a virtual meeting of 19 Opposition parties to decide a strategy to take on Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Will she succeed, or will she fail once again?
Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com spoke to Rasheed Kidwai, veteran Congress watcher and author of 24 Akbar Road and Sonia -- A Biography, to find out what is different about the strategy being framed by Sonia and her allies this time, and if it will work.
The first of a two-part interview:
How do you see the outcome of Sonia Gandhi's meeting with Opposition leaders?
This is a very significant development.
Firstly, because Sonia Gandhi has taken charge.
There were various chief ministers of different states and other 19 political party heads who attended this meeting.
Many television anchors are dismissive about this meeting, but this is getting real.
In a recently conducted survey by a media house, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity chart showed a steep decline.
In the recent monsoon session of Parliament, Opposition parties displayed a rare show of unity.
More significantly, the Congress (now) does not have a big brotherly attitude towards a new coalition.
You can call this UPA 3.
Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi is not contesting the prime ministerial candidate post.
This shows that the prime minister's post is up for grabs.
Perhaps this is why Mamata Banerjee is expanding her base outside West Bengal and making inroads into Assam and Tripura and hopes to take her Trinamool Congress's tally to 60 (Lok Sabha) seats or so.
Only recently, senior leader Sushmita Dev left the Congress party and joined the TMC. In this circumstance, how can one say there will be amity between Sonia and Mamata?
Sushmita has gone to a friendly party.
Poaching between the Congress and TMC is happening from the day the TMC came into existence as a party.
The TMC consists of mostly ex-Congressmen.
This is not something frowned upon, as some disgruntled TMC leaders have also joined the Congress.
Mamata is eyeing the prime minister's post.
She knows that there are only 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal so she has to expand her base.
If she manages to get more seats in Assam (Sushmita Dev is from Assam) and Tripura, then Mamata's chances of becoming PM are more.
No other regional party can reach the figure of 50-plus seats.
In Tamil Nadu there are only 39 Lok Sabha seats.
The Congress is not concerned so much about this (Sushmita Dev leaving the party).
They know that a road map is being planned which is called as 'half of half', which is basically poll strategist Prashant Kishore's idea.
272 is the magic figure to get a majority in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress wants half of 272, that is 136 seats, to be won by non-Congress and non-NDA parties.
The Congress will stake a claim to form the government only if it gets 150 seats or more, which at present looks very unlikely.
Does it mean that this meeting was a signal that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are going to play a backroom role and push other leaders for the prime minister's post?
There is a grain of truth in that. Sonia and Rahul are not power wielders, but trustees of power.
The Congress has the objective to defeat the BJP.
They want to deprive Prime Minister Modi another term in 2024 and for that they are ready to make any sacrifice.
The Congress will be part of a government which will keep the BJP out.
They will eye ministries like finance, home and external affairs where they have domain expertise and a national perspective.
This will give them clout within that coalition.
If not Modi, then who? The Opposition has not been able to give an alternative name to the Indian public on this single issue.
It is a fashionable and elitist approach.
We saw that in the 2004 elections too. If not Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then who?
All the poll ratings were high for Vajpayee before the country went into elections, and you know the outcome of that election.
Dr Manmohan Singh was not even in the picture before the elections and Sonia Gandhi was not even seen as a competitor to Vajpayee.
If you see the voting pattern of India, post 1980 [with the exception of 1984, 1999 and 2019], the people of India generally vote for change.
They vote against the incumbent government.
Rajiv Gandhi was voted out.
V P Singh was voted out.
P V Narasimha Rao was voted out.
Vajpayee did win in 1999 as the elections were held after one year, but in 2004, he was voted out.
Generally, the mandate is not extended to the ruling party by the people of India.