As opposition parties get down to their second unity show in Bengaluru, a big difference from Round One in Patna is the presence of Sonia Gandhi at a meeting held in a state where the Congress is firmly in control.
Sonia Gandhi’s presence is an “outcome” of the first meeting, say Congress leaders, but they are hoping that her experience as a coalition builder before the 2004 polls and her personal relationships across the political spectrum will add heft to the Congress’s voice at the negotiating table.
Sonia Gandhi’s presence is of special significance in Bengaluru. The Congress’s chairman of media and publicity, Pawan Khera, emphasizes, “She is a senior leader who was present in all parliamentary meetings and her presence will give strength to the opposition”.
Given that leaders of most alliance partners had once rallied around Sonia Gandhi, the chemistry may help move things forward. The optics also sent a clear message – the Congress is the glue, the central pole around which the opposition must unite.
“In Patna, Nitish Kumar was the focus and the question was, who is bringing everyone together? Here it is the Congress that is the host and it is a subtle reiteration of the party’s position,” said a senior leader who requested anonymity.
By taking a stand on the Centre’s ordinance on the control of administrative services in Delhi, the Congress is seemingly projecting a more conciliatory image. The move signals its willingness to make concessions and ensure that, despite the historic animosity, there is an effort to engage with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This may be an indication, beyond AAP, that the Congress is willing to give what it takes to build a coalition.
This will ensure that the Congress-AAP friction does not end up ruining the effort and the optics is right.
However, in terms of substance, though the location of the meeting is in southern India, the substantive dialogue will revolve around electoral strategy in the BJP’s bastion, the northern states. This is because alliances in the southern states, barring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, seem set. The DMK is in charge in Tamil Nadu, the Congress in Karnataka, and a Left versus Congress battle in Kerala – par for the course.
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Andhra Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy are unlikely allies and Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) seems to be heading to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This makes coalitions in South India relatively straightforward coalition.
It is in the northern states that creating this rainbow coalition and getting it right is essential.
A senior leader pointed out that Sonia Gandhi’s presence and experience could help, especially with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. The two parties have had uncomfortable equations in the past, and firming up the tenets of the alliance in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will be the launch pad for opposition unity.
There is a sense that leaders like Akhilesh Yadav or Tejashwi Yadav, who are of similar vintage as Rahul Gandhi, would respond much better to Sonia Gandhi. Even with older allies like Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Yadav, the Sonia factor is believed to have better play. It is something that is beyond Mallikarjun Kharge’s experience and Rahul Gandhi’s enthusiasm.
The crisis in Maharashtra is a focal point, but on the whole, unlike Patna, there is an expectation of some concrete forward movement and greater cohesion after this meeting. While it is still nascent, two points seem to be emerging. First, the reiteration of Congress as the central force bringing the “Mahagathbandhan” together, and second, Sonia Gandhi may still hold sway and be part of the opposition’s battle plan.
Given that the BJP has started prepping its own show of strength by reengaging with some former allies and reaching out to others, the opposition will need something to show for its mega Bengaluru conclave.