Not just Punjab, INDIA bloc has multiple flashpoints across India
If leaders fail to tide over internal squabbles, the bloc may end up being a caricature of the potentially formidable alliance it had started off as just four months ago
Even before its leaders could get together to discuss seat-sharing arrangements among their parties for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, has the Opposition’s INDIA coalition begun to crack under the weight of its contradictions and the conflicting priorities of its constituents?
From Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi in the north to Madhya Pradesh in the middle, Bengal in the east and Kerala in the South, flashpoints within the 28-party coalition have begun to mount in less than a fortnight since leaders of its coordination committee held their first meeting in New Delhi to reiterate their resolve to unitedly take on Narendra Modi’s BJP in next year’s general election.
Key INDIA constituents, the Congress party and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), were not cordial allies to begin with. Now, the arrest of Congress MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira, on September 28, by the Punjab Police in AAP-ruled Punjab threatens to derail whatever progress central leaders of the two parties may have made over the past three months at building a working relationship.
The arrest of Khaira, chief of the All India Kisan Congress and one of the most unsparing critics of the AAP in Punjab Congress, in an eight-year old narcotics case has been cited by his party colleagues as yet another example of “political vendetta” unleashed by the AAP’s Bhagwant Mann-led government against its rivals. Incidentally, Khaira’s arrest has also been condemned by Congress’s rivals, Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP.
Congress leaders from Punjab and Delhi now cite Khaira’s arrest as vindication of their stand against an alliance with the AAP. The arrest and the subsequent furore kicked up by his party’s Punjab unit has also riled Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who had, so far, been cautioning his party colleagues to hold their punches against the AAP.
Kharge’s “we will not bear injustice quietly” remark to questions by journalists over Khaira’s arrest was meant to put the AAP on notice with regard to future talks of an alliance between the two parties for the 20 Lok Sabha seats spread across Delhi and Punjab. Congress sources said Kejriwal’s response on September 29 to the media’s queries over Khaira’s arrest, wherein he claimed to not have details about the case but asserted that the Mann government “is committed to ending drug menace in the state... be it an influential person or a small-time person, no one will be spared”, has not gone down well with Kharge. Kejriwal has, however, claimed that his party remains committed to the INDIA coalition.
Sources close to Kharge told The Federal that Congress president and also Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi have been irked with Kejriwal “breaking his assurance made to INDIA leaders at our first meeting in Patna” of putting the AAP’s electoral expansion plans on hold till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls conclude. The AAP has fielded candidates for the upcoming assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where the electoral contest has traditionally been between the BJP and the Congress.
A senior Congress leader told The Federal that “the AAP is deliberately creating situations that will force our hand; Kejriwal says he is committed to INDIA in our fight against the BJP but the AAP government in Punjab selectively targets our leaders and the party fields candidates in states where the Congress is in a position to defeat the BJP ... he does not want to take the blame for breaking away from the alliance; he wants that blame to fall on us... it’s his double game; this is what our leaders from Punjab and Delhi had been warning our central leadership about all along”.
If Khaira’s arrest is testing the INDIA bloc’s unity in Punjab and Delhi, trouble has also been brewing between the coalition’s constituents from Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ever since the alliance’s 13-member coordination committee held its first meeting in Delhi on September 14.
Abdullah’s suggestion at the coordination committee meeting of a possible seat-sharing formula that the alliance may consider moving forward has unsettled the PDP, and also to a lesser degree, the Congress. The NC leader had proposed that “seats currently held by a party should be excluded from the discussions”.
The NC presently holds all three Lok Sabha constituencies (Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag) that fall in the Kashmir Valley while the two seats from Jammu region (Udhampur and Jammu) were won by the BJP in 2014 and 2019. The BJP also holds the lone Lok Sabha seat from Ladakh. Abdullah had told the INDIA coordination committee that seat-sharing talks must be held only for seats currently held by the BJP or its allies, unless an INDIA constituent was willing to surrender a seat held by it to an ally.
The PDP has bluntly rejected Abdullah’s formula since accepting it would mean that Mufti’s party, which has been the NC’s traditional rival in the Valley, will have to forfeit its claim on all three Lok Sabha seats that fall in Kashmir. NC sources, however, claim that Abdullah’s proposition is “just and reflects the ground realities in Kashmir” since the PDP would be a “liability” for the coalition in the Kashmir Valley since the electorate there has not forgiven Mufti for her alliance with the BJP which had preceded the imposition of President’s Rule in the erstwhile state that then provided the Modi regime a chance to abrogate Article 370.
Additionally, NC sources claim it was Mufti who maintained during the INDIA dialogues in Patna, Bangalore and Bombay that she would accept NC chief Farooq Abdullah’s decision on seat-sharing in J&K since he is the seniormost leader of the coalition and also of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration.
Similar tensions have also been brewing between the Congress and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh – a state with 80 Lok Sabha seats that gave the BJP a fourth of its total seat tally in both the 2014 and 2019 General Elections. Sources in both parties told The Federal that informal talks between their leaders over a seat-sharing formula for UP began on a “sour note” and have made no headway since.
The Congress, said SP sources, had staked a “laughable claim” on 20 seats and was willing to scale down the demand only by a fraction. “They have two MLAs out of 403 in the UP assembly and just one MP (Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bareli)... the party has zero presence on the ground, how will it contest 20 seats,” a senior SP leader said, wondering, “is the goal of the INDIA alliance to defeat the BJP or to hand power to it on a platter?”
The Congress, however, claims that the SP had, in preliminary discussions, offered it only two seats (Sonia’s Rae Bareli and Amethi, which Rahul had lost to BJP’s Smriti Irani in 2019). “Just because we are open to an alliance does not mean we will write the obituary for our own party. Yes, we are organisationally weak in UP but let us not forget that we had won 21 seats in the state in 2009 while the SP had got 23,” UP Congress chief Ajay Rai told The Federal.
Though Rai said seat-sharing between the two parties will be decided between the Congress high command and Akhilesh and he was merely “conveying sentiments of Congress workers”, he claimed that “ceding 78 of UP’s 80 seats to the SP only because we fared poorly in the last two elections would be wrong... the last two elections were fought under abnormal circumstances (paristhithiyan asadhaaran thi) and even the SP could win only single-digit seats; today they have three seats while we have one”.
Breakdown in talks
Members of various INDIA constituent parties told The Federal that a common grouse within the bloc has been against a near “breakdown” of dialogue among its senior leaders since the September 14 coordination committee meeting. “We started off with a sense of urgency and after (the meeting in) Bengaluru, we were riding high because the name we chose (INDIA) had rattled the BJP and caught the nation’s imagination but we can’t continue gloating over our name... people will not vote for us only because we are calling ourselves INDIA; it is unlikely that the next two months will see any breakthrough because the Congress, which is the main constituent that has to work out alliances in most states will be busy with assembly polls. By December, we will have just two months left before the Lok Sabha campaign starts and we are still nowhere near finalising a framework to operationalise our alliance,” a senior INDIA leader said.
What is testing the nerves of many leaders within the alliance is also the attitude of some constituents, the Congress in particular, towards decisions taken by the coordination committee. The committee, which has NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, Congress’s KC Venugopal, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, JMM’s Hemant Soren, AAP’s Raghav Chaddha, CPI’s D. Raja, among others, as its members, had taken two key decisions for operationalising the alliance at its first – and thus far, the last – meeting.
The panel had decided to hold state-level seat-sharing talks “at the earliest” and to organise the bloc’s first joint rally in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh’s capital, Bhopal, in the first week of October.
Kamal Nath's googly
While seat-sharing talks are yet to begin officially, the committee’s decision to hold the bloc’s first joint rally in Bhopal was arbitrarily shot down by Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath on September 16, embarrassing even the Congress’s central leadership which had gathered that day in Hyderabad for the first meeting of the party’s revamped working committee.
Nath’s veto against the joint rally, say sources close to him, was motivated by two key factors. Firstly, given his aggressive soft-Hindutva pitch to woo Hindu voters, Nath did not wish to share stage in Bhopal with leaders of DMK after Udhayanidhi Maran’s remarks against Sanatana Dharma. Secondly, INDIA allies SP and AAP have both fielded candidates for the MP polls and Nath saw no point in sharing a stage with leaders of these parties at a time when their candidates were also fighting the Congress.
While Nath’s reasons may stem from his own political compulsions arising out of a keenly contested electoral battle, non-Congress INDIA leaders saw his decision to “unilaterally cancel the rally without even informing the coordination committee” as undermining the objectives of the alliance as a whole. “What is the point of having a coordination committee and spending hours to discuss these strategies when any leader from a party can unilaterally shoot down collective decisions... the whole purpose of having a joint rally in a state where elections are due was to give a boost to the INDIA alliance narrative; if Kamal Nath had a problem with some allies being present, he could have reached out to them through the backchannel and requested them to opt out. If the coordination committee is supposed to steer the coalition then its decisions should be followed, else we should stop wasting time on these meetings” another INDIA leader said.
Seeing red in West Bengal
The CPM, another key INDIA partner, has not named its nominee for the coordination committee yet while the party’s secretary general, Sitaram Yechury, has indicated that the party may even go solo in Bengal, a state where it had previously been allied with the Congress against the BJP and the INDIA-bloc Trinamool Congress. An alliance between the Congress and the Left Front was anyway ruled out in Kerala where the BJP is a fringe player and the two dominant alliances are led by the Congress and the CPM. The Congress unit in Bengal is also vehemently opposed to an alliance with the Trinamool and if it has no truck with the Left either, a major state where a united INDIA bloc could have posed a serious electoral challenge to the BJP will witness multi-cornered contests on several seats.
As such, if its leaders fail to tide over these internal squabbles, the INDIA bloc, at least electorally, may end up being a caricature of the potentially formidable alliance it had started off as just four months ago. What may be left of it are just the presently functioning Opposition alliances in states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, which have proved woefully inadequate to stop the BJP’s victory march in the last two Lok Sabha polls.