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Familiar follies : Congress and its Gujarat alliances

The Indian National Congress which was the vanguard of India’s freedom struggle has come to a point where it needs to introspect. The party has become bereft of any credible ideology which reflects its legacy and today relies heavily on unusual alliances for short-term political gain. This opportunistic pattern has continued in the runup to the Gujarat elections and is set to backfire on Congress.

With no clear leadership in the party, dynastic fiefdoms at all levels and rampant corruption, Congress has found itself unable to define a core set of values or a unifying ideology that its leaders and cadre can get behind. This lack of ideology is further exacerbated by a string of alliances designed only to isolate BJP. The theme of ‘opposition unity’ that Congress has been falling back upon does not enable it to take any principled stance on any issue or present a vision for the country. Congress today is truly malleable and mutable depending purely upon the electoral gains that can be made through these alliances. The jury may be out on the success of these coalition experiments but they have certainly taken a toll on the party’s organization. That seems to be the reason why in the last few elections even the most committed supporters of the party are seeking alternatives, let alone the non-partisan voters.

Congress has been trying to mask its desperate bid for power by positioning its coalition choices as attempts towards stringing together a “Secular front”. This is at best a reaction to BJP’s purported communal agenda and at worst a convenient political tool. Even while trying to define itself in the communal-secular duality, it has ironically aligned with communal forces on the other side of the spectrum. The Congress’s alliance with the parties like Muslim league and PFI was not stemming from an ideological commonality but are merely an attempt to tap into vote bank politics.

This political opportunism and lack of coherent ideology is quite prominent in the ongoing Gujarat campaign where Congress has tried to reconcile interests as diverse as the Patidars, Dalits, and OBCs. It is because this cobbled up a transactional alliance that a big chunk of its cadre has abandoned the party and Congress has to rely on candidates from outside the traditional fold of the party. Congress’ extensive reliance on Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani for electoral returns in Gujarat is more a sign of its tragic ideological downfall than any possibility of a political resurgence. The violent outbursts over ticket distribution, the hastily redrawn candidate list to placate vested interests all serve to underscore the point that the Congress-led coalition in Gujarat has no common ground except probably the hunger for power. This is a precursor to what will follow in the unlikely scenario that the Congress comes to power. The dissonance within the party is bound to lead to an unstable government unable to govern and distracted by constant political crises. And the development of the state will be its first victim.

Non-ideological electoral alliances have also contributed to the Congress’ lack of credibility on corruption. The UPA regime is a prime example of how such alliances led to Congress ignoring serious acts of impropriety by fellow coalition members. Congress instead of denouncing corruption often found itself defending and participating in the same. The 2G scam, involving the ally DMK, was the lowest point which largely contributed to Congress’ massive loss in 2014 general elections. During the first UPA government, Congress’ readiness to depend on the Left parties ultimately led to a serious deadlock on important issues of national interest and almost led to a premature term. The Mahagatbandhan that they put together in Bihar was again an attempt to ally with ideologically diverse groups with no ideological commonality. The alliance soon collapsed leaving Congress red-faced over its defense of Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Congress continues to pursue strange bedfellows in the political arena in spite of the bad precedents. Earlier this year during the Uttar Pradesh elections, Congress did a volte-face mid-campaign and aligned with Samajwadi Party. To the great surprise and confusion of the party workers, SP and Congress which were two different poles of the UP political calculus came together to counter BJP. The same party and the same cadre who were till that point questioning the SP government on its performance had to campaign for them in many constituencies. Many couldn’t find the common vision which would explain the hasty alliance and the performance of Congress and its alliance partner in the UP elections became a cautionary tale for those who seek alliances in politics.

Even after its desperate attempts to align with anyone, Congress has managed to wrestle only a few votes. Congress contested 41 seats in alliance with the DMK but could only win 8. In Uttar Pradesh, it contested 105 seats while allying with the Samajwadi Party and won a measly 7. In Bihar, it contested 41 out of 242 seats as a part of the Mahagathbandhan but won mere 27 seats. In spite of its rainbow coalition in Gujarat, the chances of a Congress win are extremely low.

These alliances and their eventual failure are illustrative of the ideological identity crisis which the Congress is going through. If Congress seeks to revive itself politically, it must go back to the whiteboard and clearly define what it stands for and what it represents. The constant reference to the party’s legacy will only go so far. The disillusioned cadre also seeks clearer definitions than ‘opposition unity’ and ‘keeping out the communal forces’. The common voter seeks more than hastily phrased electoral promises. What ails Congress today is deeper than what a mere transition in the party presidency can correct. And until that happens Congress is bound to disappoint in poll-bound Gujarat notwithstanding its seemingly powerful coalition.

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