As Congress sheds Big Brother stance, has it ceded too much to AAP?
AAP and Congress leaders pose during a joint press conference in New Delhi on Saturday. Whether their victory signs materialise on the ground remains to be seen | PTI

As Congress sheds Big Brother stance, has it ceded too much to AAP?

Congress, finally forced to accept that it can no longer dictate terms to its allies, faces the challenge of regaining its foothold in the seats it’s doling out

Over a decade after it emerged from the embers of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement — which had set off a domino effect that aided the BJP’s meteoric rise to power and the Congress’s brisk decline — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Saturday (February 24) sealed a multi-state alliance with the Congress in the ambitious hope of stopping a further saffron surge in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls.

That much political smut has flown down the Yamuna since Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP ended Congress’s 15-year rule in Delhi, and proceeded to grab the party’s electoral ground in other states with varying degrees of success, was evident in the seat-sharing deal.

What Congress ceded

The Congress, despite its successive routs in the Delhi Assembly and municipal polls since Kejriwal’s electoral foray in 2013, surprisingly managed to trump the AAP in the national capital during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, though still losing all seven seats to the BJP. It has agreed to contest the North East Delhi, North West Delhi, and Chandni Chowk seats, while the AAP will field its candidates in East Delhi, New Delhi, South Delhi, and West Delhi. The bigger surprise in the alliance, however, were the seats the Congress agreed to cede to its once-acerbic critic and now ally in Haryana and Gujarat.

Of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, the Congress will contest nine while the AAP will field its candidate from Kurukshetra. In Gujarat, the Congress will contest 24 seats, leaving Bhavnagar and the “prestigious” constituency of Bharuch, family turf of late Congress leader Ahmed Patel, to the AAP.

What AAP parted with

The AAP, which recently succeeded in installing its mayor in the Union Territory of Chandigarh with support from Congress councillors and a favourable Supreme Court order following a contentious election, has agreed to leave the Chandigarh parliamentary seat to its ally. Kejriwal’s party will also withdraw its already-declared candidate from the South Goa Lok Sabha constituency, currently represented by senior Congress leader Francisco Sardinha. The Congress will, thus, field its candidate from both of Goa’s parliamentary seats.

In Punjab, where the ruling AAP and the Congress have been principal rivals since the latter was ousted from power by Kejriwal’s party two years ago, there will be no alliance between the two parties for the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats. The AAP has, for now, also refused to withdraw the candidates it has already announced for the Dibrugarh, Guwahati, and Sonitpur Lok Sabha segments of Assam.

Congress’s desperation

More than the AAP securing seats in the alliance in provinces beyond Delhi, the Congress’s willingness to part with constituencies in favour of a party it dubbed as the BJP’s B-Team for years, and to which it consistently lost ground in Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, and Goa, shows how electorally crippled the Grand Old Party of India has now become. Not only has Kejriwal forced the Congress to cede ground in Delhi where the AAP has already usurped much of the Congress’s traditional vote bank, but he has also succeeded in securing those Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat and Haryana where the so-called senior party still has a robust voter base.

The rumblings the alliance caused in Bharuch, where Ahmed Patel’s son Faisal Patel and daughter Mumtaz Patel were both vying for a ticket, were evident even before the Congress’s Mukul Wasnik made the official announcement of the seat-sharing deal. The Patel siblings have remained defiant, though Faisal more than Mumtaz, and continued to assert that the constituency their late father last won in 1984 “must remain with the Congress”.

Congress insiders say the party’s leaders in Haryana are also unhappy over the Kurukshetra seat being given to AAP. The Congress’s tallest leader in the state, former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda, who had advocated against any tie-up with AAP, grudgingly accepted the alliance on Saturday. Hooda’s veiled discomfort over his party ceding Kurukshetra to the AAP, however, was evident when he told reporters, “We have a strong organisation in all constituencies of Haryana and we could have contested the Kurukshetra seat on our own strength; we have strong candidates.”

Will voters accept alliance?

The big challenge for the two parties will now be to ensure that the alliance meets the approval of their voters in Delhi and beyond. “An alliance is only successful if the allies are able to ensure that their votes are transferred to each other. There is such a bitter history between the Congress and AAP; the AAP essentially owes its existence to ‘anti-Congress-ism’ and Congress workers or even ordinary voters, especially in Delhi, will find it very difficult to stomach that we are now in alliance with a party that came into being promising to send a whole bunch of our leaders, from Sonia Gandhi to Sheila Dikshit, to jail for alleged corruption. It will be equally difficult for Kejriwal to explain this alliance to his support base; this was a man who formed his first government (in 2013) with outside support from the Congress and then unilaterally broke away claiming the public hadn’t accepted his decision to seek Congress’s support,” a former Congress MP from Delhi told The Federal.

The former MP also claimed that the alliance will “hurt the Congress in the long run, not just in Delhi but wherever we have tied up, because we are now legitimising the AAP after years of calling it the BJP’s B-Team”. He added, “Don’t forget that despite the AAP’s huge victories in the Delhi Assembly polls, the people favoured the Congress in the national elections as the BJP’s real rival... in 2014, we finished second in all seven seats in Delhi and, even in 2019, when we did not have a single MLA in the Delhi Assembly and had badly lost the municipal polls, we still finished second in five Lok Sabha seats.”

BJP’s jibe

The BJP has lost no time in highlighting the contradictions within the Congress-AAP alliance. Sundry leaders of the party, including Union minister Hardeep Puri, have mocked the two parties for having an alliance in Delhi, Gujarat, and Haryana while “fighting against each other in Punjab”.

The BJP has also developed a sudden concern for the legacy of Ahmed Patel, whose last Rajya Sabha election victory the saffron party had desperately but unsuccessfully tried to foil by engineering cross-voting by the Congress’s Gujarat MLAs. Aware that Patel’s children and the Congress workers in Bharuch haven’t taken kindly to the AAP getting the late Congress veteran’s home turf in its kitty, the BJP has slammed the Grand Old Party for “pawning away” the legacy of former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s longest serving political adviser.

Humbled by defeats

Long accused by allies of adopting a Big Brother attitude in seat-sharing talks and seeking a share of seats that far exceeded its electoral muscle, the Congress has finally been forced to accept that it can no longer dictate terms of engagement to its partners. Leaving a seat in Madhya Pradesh to the Samajwadi Party and now ceding constituencies in Delhi, Gujarat, and Haryana to the AAP presents a Congress that has been humbled by successive defeats and also showcases its commitment to the INDIA bloc.

Yet, this would be far from enough in taking on the BJP at the hustings, a task for which the Congress and its partners will also have to ensure that their alliance works on the ground. Moreover, for the Congress, a challenge in the not-so-distant future would be to regain its foothold in seats it is currently doling out to allies who may or may not be as generous if and when the country’s political landscape alters.

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