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Will Regional Parties Come To Congress Or...

By Aditi Phadnis
August 22, 2022 09:10 IST
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Some of the Congress's new-found enthusiasm for hitting the streets will show its result in the Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka elections.
That is when we will know if the Congress will go to the regional parties or the parties will come to the Congress.

IMAGE: Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, right, whispers to his mother and Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi during a protest of party MPs against inflation and unemployment outside Parliament on August 5, 2022. Photograph: Arun Sharma/PTI Photo

Is the Opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance going to come from Delhi? Or are state capitals going to lead it?

Is the Congress, which has a national presence but dwindling influence in states, going to become the force to lead the forces opposed to the NDA?

Or is it going to be regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi?

As the 2024 general elections approach, all Opposition parties are chopping and changing strategy.

In some cases, becoming more aggressive than before.

All of last fortnight, a face of the Congress not seen before was visible in the capital.

The party has disrupted proceedings in Parliament in the past to show its disagreement with the policies of the government.

But on the issue of price rise, wearing colour-coordinated black in Parliament was as much a part of seeking to be identified as protesters, as asking state units to take out processions in state capitals to show the party was not somnolent.

All this was against the background of the ongoing probe by the Enforcement Directorate that is veering in the direction of implicating the party's top managers, including the Gandhi family, in hawala

The party decided to ramp up its Opposition to the BJP/NDA after discussions it held at its Udaipur conclave earlier this year.

On that occasion, the line that the Congress should doggedly fight its own fight and not become an appendage to regional parties reigned supreme.

In parallel, the regional parties are making their own moves.

Beleaguered TMC chief Mamata Banerjee recently visited Delhi over four days to assess the mood after a key minister, Partha Chatterjee, was taken into custody on charges of money laundering and corruption and the TMC held back from defending him.

The TMC abstained in the vice president's election rather than support Congress candidate Margaret Alva on the grounds that it had not been consulted.

All over South India, regional parties seem to be shedding old friends and making new ones.

The TRS not only supported Alva, it also boycotted the special NITI Aayog meeting, charging that attending was 'not useful' as the Centre had ignored its demand for special financial assistance to Telangana. The AAP also supported Alva.

However, experts and politicians are divided over who the challenger to the NDA/BJP is really going to be: The Congress or regional parties.

"Sub-national, linguistic-based parties have proven to be the only reliable identity-based counter to the politics of Hindu nationalism. Even in eastern states where the BJP has made massive inroads, it has largely done so by replacing the Congress or the Left, not by encroaching on the space claimed by regional parties." points out Asim Ali, a researcher on Indian domestic politics at the Centre for Policy Research, the New Delhi-based think-tank.

"When facing an incumbent espousing regional pride, such as the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha or the TMC in Bengal, the BJP has been soundly defeated. Similarly, in the southern state of Telangana, which is the next high-growth frontier for the BJP, the party's strategy is to become the second pole of politics by replacing the Congress rather than challenging the stronger regional TRS," Ali adds.

Unless it revives itself, Ali says the Congress cannot expect to fight the BJP.

"In the 2019 election, the Congress lost 171 of the 186 seats where it battled the BJP in a head-to-head contest. Therefore, any hope of Opposition success in the near term depends on an electoral revival of the Congress," he says.

"The BJP and the Congress might not like it, but until we see the wholesale decline of regional parties, alliance politics is here to stay," says Adam Ziegfeld, associate professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia.

This is true: in Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party, even in its current enfeebled state (three Members of Parliament in Lok Sabha, one in Rajya Sabha, and just 23 of 175 MLAs in Andhra Pradesh), has just done a deal with the Jana Sena Party which, in turn, is an alliance partner of the BJP.

If Nara Chandrababu Naidu can edge closer to the BJP, he will be driving his biggest rival in the state, the ruling Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress, out from the BJP's embrace.

So, for many regional parties, the BJP has become a political pivot.

But the Congress is not having any of it.

The recent aggressive mien on price rise, goods and services tax, and other economic issues is designed to be a platform broad enough to accommodate regional aspirations of state-level satraps as well. The party is holding meetings with economists of different persuasions to develop this line of thinking.

"We are not challenging Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) on issues of Telangana. We are asking him to come along with us on problems with GST, employment, and the financial crisis state governments are facing. The central government can give revdi (freebies) in the form of free food. The state governments must not. Is there any justification for this?" asks a senior Congress leader.

Some of the Congress's new-found enthusiasm for hitting the streets will show its result in the Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka elections, all due in the next few months.

That is when we will know if the Congress will go to the regional parties or the parties will come to the Congress.

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Aditi Phadnis
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