Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) leaders in Mumbai, September 1, 2023
DEFEAT IS AN ORPHAN and politicians know it only too well, unless, of course, you have the luxury of being detached from reality. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge is not one of those who dwell in the world of illusion. He had personally contacted various members of the I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc to invite them to the meeting on December 6, now deferred. To be fair to him, the 81-year-old leader had reached out to them days before the results of the Assembly elections to four states were announced on December 3, the day that saw the main opposition party suffer a humiliating defeat in all three northern states that went to the polls in late November.
The meeting had to be postponed to the third week of December because some major constituents of this anti-BJP combine decided to skip it citing other commitments. Many insiders say that the disinterest and disarray within this new entity— which was conceived in mid-2023 and pitched as a masterstroke of political vision and a counterweight to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)—is on the rise and these RSVPs saying ‘no’ suggest internecine wranglings.
Some of them ascribe it to the fact that the strings that tied the members of this alliance together were loose in the first place. Which means, as an inevitable corollary, cracks have widened. The lack of ideological cohesion, besides its sense of purpose, has become conspicuous after the resounding reverses in the three states where Congress not only lost but also vastly trailed internal expectations and exit poll surveys. The regional allies are emboldened enough to come out and tell the Congress leaders to clear phantoms from their heads and grasp reality. That the Congress eschewed alliances in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh didn’t go down well with a few allies.
On the same day of the results, Janata Dal (U) leader KC Tyagi accused Congress of not following the coalition dharma and of ignoring other I.N.D.I.A. parties while it is unable to win on its own. Samajwadi Party (SP) chief and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said in Varanasi the next day that the “poll results ended egos” and hoped that parties that want to fight BJP will have to display more rigour. His statements, coming as they did, after trading barbs with Congress during the Madhya Pradesh election campaign where SP had hoped to forge a seat-sharing formula with the Congress, gave away his misgivings about the alliance. Senior SP leader Sudhir Panwar told Open that Congress wanted to project itself as the leader of the alliance while SP proved to be the most formidable ideological opponent to BJP “since it has a firm base in the electorally preponderant Uttar Pradesh” which sends the largest number of MPs from a single state to Lok Sabha. For her part, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee excused herself from the I.N.D.I.A. meeting saying that she had not known about it, later adding that she had functions to attend in North Bengal, in a clear indication that her priorities are elsewhere. Jharkhand Chief Minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader Hemant Soren also decided to give it a miss along with Akhilesh Yadav, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin (who had to stay back because of the floods back home in Chennai). Most of these leaders promised to send emissaries. Kumar had agreed to send JD (U) President Lalan Singh and National General Secretary and Minister Sanjay Kumar Jha.
Several allies admit that I.N.D.I.A. is a coming together of disparate forces with sharp political differences and the only factor that bound them together was their opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They had no catchy political slogans to offer the voters
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On the day the meeting was originally to be held, December 6, Congress came out with a statement to hide their embarrassment, saying that some partners had not received the information. It added that an informal meeting of floor leaders was held at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge. Whatever the reasons given, the frosty response to the Congress’ overtures to the others in its time of need and frustration is proof of multiple factors plaguing the so-called coalition, as many allies suggest: to start with, it was blatantly opportunistic, and secondly, what was missing in action was a counternarrative and political heft to take on the might of the BJP-led formation.
While some allies were piqued that they weren’t treated well or consulted about the decisions ahead of the emphatic loss in the polls to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, a few other leaders felt out of place in the group with which they had no organic connection, and leaders of politically insignificant outfits did all the talking thrice when it had convened earlier. Let’s face it: several allies admit that I.N.D.I.A. is a coming together of disparate forces with sharp political differences and the only factor that bound them together was their opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They had no catchy political slogans to offer the voters, and to compound their woes, the Congress leadership, especially Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, invariably rolled up his sleeves and insisted on being the majority partner at every breath. A section of the SP leadership has launched an attack on his sister Priyanka Gandhi stating that it is her alleged political manoeuvring that made Congress eat humble pie at the hustings.
AMONG THOSE WHO first RSVPed the Congress to mark themselves ‘busy’ was Nitish Kumar, who claims to be the architect of the alliance that he expected would help prove his utility to the dominant state partner, the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which had over time become sceptical of Kumar’s political relevance, perhaps for all the right reasons. It was he who chaired the alliance’s first meeting in Patna on June 23, which was attended by the representatives of 16 parties. The I.N.D.I.A. partners met twice afterwards— in Bengaluru on July 17-18, and in Mumbai on August 31 and September 1. In the second, two-day meeting, Sonia Gandhi chaired the session. The third meeting was hosted by Shiv Sena (UBT) President Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai where it passed a resolution to fight the elections together and work together “as far as possible” to avoid any split of anti-BJP votes. Their Mumbai resolution decided to do the following:
“We, the I.N.D.I.A. parties, hereby resolve to contest the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections together as far as possible. Seat-sharing arrangements in different states will be initiated immediately and concluded at the earliest in a collaborative spirit of give-and-take.
We, the I.N.D.I.A. parties, hereby resolve to organise public rallies at the earliest in different parts of the country on issues of public concern and importance.
We, the I.N.D.I.A. parties, hereby resolve to coordinate our respective communications and media strategies and campaigns with the theme Judega BHARAT, Jeetega INDIA in different languages.”
But nothing has come of those slogans or decisions so far. Things started on a bad note. The political combine had to cancel its first proposed joint rally in Bhopal in the first week of October where it had planned to raise the issue of inflation, unemployment, and so on. Madhya Pradesh Congress President Kamal Nath announced that it had been cancelled. Although he didn’t specify the reasons, it was understood to be due to the lack of unity or the controversy around a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader and son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin making controversial statements on Sanatana Dharma that put Congress in a bad spot in the poll-bound state.
Together, these parties have 142 seats in Lok Sabha, 98 in the Rajya Sabha, and more than 1,600 across the Assemblies, but taking on BJP at the national level requires much more momentum than it currently has on its side. The reasons are several and much to their anguish, a few insiders say besides being strange bedfellows, the bloc’s meetings or even informal get-togethers do not inspire confidence. On the other hand, there is more babble than disciplined talk.
The lack of ideological cohesion has become conspicuous after the resounding reverses in the three states where Congress not only lost but also vastly trailed internal expectations and exit poll surveys. The regional allies are emboldened enough to come out and tell the Congress leaders to clear phantoms from their heads
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For instance, Nitish Kumar’s antics at I.N.D.I.A. meetings have endeared him to none. Rahul Gandhi had himself reportedly complained about the Bihar leader, a former long-time ally of BJP, dominating the sessions and not sparing much time for the others. Gandhi Junior, for his part, typically whiles away his time at such meets scrolling on his cell phone. Others who have an equally exaggerated sense of self-importance at these conclaves include CPI’s D Raja and CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury. Akhilesh Yadav never speaks at these meetings and instead deputes his uncle and SP National General Secretary Ram Gopal Yadav.
WHAT HOBBLES I.N.D.I.A. is much more than the shrunken political strength of what was once India’s ruling party, Congress. Others, including the Left bloc, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Trinamool Congress, Janata Dal (United), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), do not have any appeal beyond one or two states on their own or in tie-up with Congress. Sample this: SP’s Akhilesh Yadav generated a lot of hype in Madhya Pradesh, and yet the party failed to win any seat and ended up with its worst-ever vote share: a mere 0.46 per cent. The same is true of JD(U) which fielded candidates in the state, some of them winning as low as 48, 61, 72, 100, 109, 272 and 348 votes, respectively, in seats they contested from. Some others are too insignificant to make an impact, including the National Conference, Indian Union Muslim League, People’s Democratic Party, and so on.
Neither Akhilesh Yadav nor Banerjee, who are provincial satraps, have it in them to make a national impact. In fact, their influence is abysmal beyond their own states. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader MK Stalin has his stature limited to his state alone. On the winnability quotient, none of the I.N.D.I.A. leaders—from Sharad Pawar to Arvind Kejriwal—make the cut. If you look at the idea of not fighting against each other so as not to split the anti-BJP vote, it is only an incremental measure when it comes to battling BJP. In many states, the I.N.D.I.A. bloc members are already in alliance, like in Tamil Nadu. In West Bengal, the alliance members can only eat into each other’s vote share since the Trinamool Congress is going it alone and the Left and Congress are in a marriage of convenience in the state, and continue to reveal their combination’s insignificance election after election. The constituents of the alliance will face a tough time in coming to an agreement on Lok Sabha seats from WestBengal, Kerala, PunjabandDelhi. The bloc doesn’t accommodate all opposition parties either—Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is not in this alliance. Which is why I.N.D.I.A.’s chances of offering BJP a good fight are quite low. Even when SP and BSP fought together in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they could not stop the BJP juggernaut in what used to be their stronghold, Uttar Pradesh. Less said the better about I.N.D.I.A.’s potential for coming up with a common minimum programme. Their building of narratives has not helped pull in votes. Its efforts to embarrass the ruling party over violence in Manipur and by targeting the Adani group have proved to be ineffective. On October 2, the Bihar government published the ‘Bihar Caste-based Survey 2022’, but it didn’t create social ripples—upper castes didn’t hit the streets in protest—and refused to click as a political game plan for OBC mobilisation.
Most importantly, none of these parties have their vote banks intact. Transferring votes is not the challenge each of these parties will face. The bigger worry is the erosion of the base to the aggressive BJP, a realisation that dawned on SP and BSP only after the 2019 elections were over and the results declared. Now, the results from Madhya Pradesh aren’t good news for BJP’s rivals. In 101 of 230 seats, BJP won more than 50 per cent, in another 32, it secured between 45 per cent and 50 per cent and in another 18, it pulled in 40-45 per cent of the votes polled.
Congress was waiting for good news from the polls in the three Hindi heartland states to gain in bargaining power over its allies, but those dreams lie shattered now. More importantly, the key takeaway from this round of state elections is that the 2024 General Election is going to be the biggest battle yet for a non-BJP coalition because the crisis that they are facing is more existential than ever before.