Congress' lack of opposition alliances gives BJP the edge

India's capital votes on Sunday in the country's parliamentary elections, with seven seats up for grabs.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thinks it can repeat its 2014 clean sweep, when it won all the seats.

Its chances brightened last month when it became clear that two key opposition parties - Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - would be pitted against each other after they failed to resolve their differences over how they could have shared seats in Delhi and the neighbouring state of Haryana.

The AAP, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, holds power in the state of Delhi and wants to expand its national influence. Haryana, where Mr Kejriwal comes from, is a key part of this plan.

Congress, on the other hand, wants to recoup political territory it has lost over the past five years.

It was reduced to just 44 seats in the 2014 polls, but wins in three key state elections in December have given it hopes that it could emerge as the single largest political party on May 23, when results for these elections are declared.

This is why it is contesting as many seats as possible.

Many argue that the division between Congress and the AAP will cause the anti-BJP vote to split.

Ms Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress party's general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh, at an election roadshow rally in New Delhi yesterday. Earlier this year, she was formally launched into politics in Uttar Pradesh state, where Congress is not part of an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance of three regional parties. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At the launch of AAP's manifesto on April 25, Mr Kejriwal claimed that "if Modi, Shah return to power, only Gandhi will be responsible", referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, and the Congress party's president, Mr Rahul Gandhi.

A split in the anti-BJP vote is also being talked about in Uttar Pradesh state, where Congress is not part of an anti-BJP alliance of three regional parties.

Instead, it launched Ms Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the sister of Mr Gandhi, formally into politics there earlier this year.

Congress is also competing against the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) candidates in most of the state's 80 seats.

The opposition's failure to strike pre-election alliances has taken the sheen off the stance they sought to present as a force united in their goal to overthrow the BJP federal government.

Much of the criticism has been directed at Congress, accused of being more preoccupied about its revival in this parliamentary election than the wider opposition goal of defeating Mr Modi and his party.

Ms Saba Naqvi, political commentator and author of Politics Of Jugaad: The Coalition Handbook, said that when it comes to alliances with Congress, it has to be remembered that it was once the "pre-eminent party" in India.

"Every other force, other than the BJP, that has come up since then has done so eating into what was the Congress' vote share," she told The Straits Times. "This is a structural problem with the party and an area of conflict that is present across the board in north India."

When the AAP won an absolute majority in the 2015 Delhi state elections, winning 67 of the 70 seats and with an impressive 54.3 per cent of the votes, it did so by cornering a good chunk of Congress's support base.

Congress lost almost 15 percentage points of its vote share from the preceding election in 2013. The BJP's share, on the other hand, went down by just 0.8 percentage points.

Reports suggested that while Mr Gandhi was willing to strike an alliance with AAP, the old guard in the Congress, led by former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, resisted, arguing that it had to re-establish itself as a national force.

"The structural difference between the Congress and other parties is that the leadership in the former doesn't negotiate discussions on alliances like in other parties," said Ms Naqvi.

"The Congress is still a party of managers and gatekeepers."

Mr Gandhi is also contesting two seats this time: Wayanad in Kerala and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The latter is a seat he won in 2014 and one that has been represented by the Gandhi family for a long time.

The move to contest Wayanad has been interpreted as a strategy to expand the party's footprint in the south.

But this threatens to eat into the share of the opposition left parties, which have a stronghold in Kerala and are reliant on the state's 20 parliamentary seats to shore up their numbers in Parliament.

Mr Shahid Siddiqui, a former MP and chief editor of the Nai Duniya weekly, argued in a tweet: "Congressmen don't understand that (the) 2019 battle is not about defeating BJP and bringing Congress to power. It is about protecting Indian democracy and its ethos.

"It (the Congress) is living in the past glory and not facing their present decline which is still on.

"Be realistic and face reality."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Congress' lack of opposition alliances gives BJP the edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe