Priyanka, interrupted? How the IAF air strike has blunted the Congress' ‘Brahmastra’

Dazed after surgical strike 2.0 and hamstrung by unwilling allies, the Congress is now staring at the prospect of warming the Opposition benches for another five years.

 |  4-minute read |   01-03-2019
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The combined Opposition has started thinking of a revised strategy to take on the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) following the India Air Force (IAF) air strikes deep inside Pakistan.

Instead of ego or one-upmanship, a struggle is on to rework alliances and partnerships, particularly in states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, among others, where the Modi-led BJP is set to reap rich electoral gains.

lok-690_022719020814.jpgSurgical strike 2.0 has altered all political calculations ahead of the 2019 General Election. (Source: Lok Sabha TV)

One idea that has gained currency is to somehow have a one-on-one between the BJP and the Opposition party in around 273 Parliamentary seats, so that the non-BJP votes don't get divided.

At present, the NDA has over 220 Lok Sabha seats.

The combined Opposition was hoping to reduce the tally by at least 100 seats — but the February 26 surgical strike has altered the entire political scenario.  

Both at the individual and collective level, the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and all the non-NDA political parties realise that India striking Pakistan is a big shot in the arm for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With the formal announcement of General Elections 2019 about barely a week away, there is anxiety — if not near-panic — among the Opposition ranks.

swaraj-690_022719020649.jpgAfter the air-strike: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad at an all-party meet. (Source: PTI)

The Congress has more reasons to worry than other parties.

So far, it has wholeheartedly welcomed the IAF’s notable feat of destroying Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camps inside Pakistan. But deep inside, the Congress is concerned about Modi and the BJP reaping rich electoral benefits. The Congress is more worried actually about the political fate of its high-profile general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who had taken a formal plunge into politics as a ‘game-changer’.

priyanka-690_022719020131.jpgBrahmastra, halted? Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi during the Congress road show in Lucknow on February 11. (Source: Reuters)

However, for almost a fortnight since the February 14 Pulwama attack, there have been no sound bites, public speeches or press conferences that would have pitched her as a challenger. Congress insiders admit that this period was crucial — and ‘Mission Priyanka’ has lost some momentum.

The idea of pitting one formidable candidate against the BJP and its allies is easier said than done — there have been little or no negotiations with Mamata Banerjee or the Left parties for seat-sharing in West Bengal. More importantly, unlike Uttar Pradesh or Delhi, the potential ally has zero interest in offering any olive branch to the Congress or Left parties.

A worse scenario is prevailing in Odisha, where the Congress and the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) have no possibility of coming together. In Andhra, both the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress are still nursing the wounds of a disastrous alliance in Telangana that got routed in the recently held Assembly polls.   

naveen-690_022719020433.jpgNaveen Patnaik is unlikely to join hands with the Congress in Odisha. (Source: India Today)

The Uttar Pradesh alliance story is grim — it is an open secret that BSP supremo Mayawati is less than welcoming in accommodating the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress, in turn, has the unpleasant option of offering seats to BSP and SP in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Maharashtra among others, where it has both robust organisational networks, election machinery and winnable candidates, in exchange for getting a ‘face-saving’ number of seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Paradoxically, the chances of non-BJP parties coming together in Uttar Pradesh vary from zero to 100 per cent.

As the saying goes, if there is a will, there’s a way. If the BSP, SP and the Congress come together, burying the bitterness of the past, they can divide the 80 seats among themselves — this is an area where United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi can use her goodwill. Ahmad Patel and AK Antony as her deputies can work out the seat adjustment.

But the Congress’ concerns do not end at these calculations. After an impressive road show, Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia had painstakingly met over 2,000 influential leaders over 72 hours (as per one account, only seven hours were used for rest). The possibility of stitching alliances with smaller caste-based parties was also explored.

But the February 26 air strikes have altered these calculations and considerations.

An optimistic Congress is now staring at the prospect of warming the Opposition benches for another five years. The gamble of sacrificing its self-interest just to keep Modi out has the potential to boomerang and there is no luxury of time to wait and watch.   

The feedback is that the grand old party has the potential to put up a credible fight and now pitch itself as a national alternative to the BJP.

Will it bite the bullet? Watch this space.

Also read: How PM Modi can earn a second term now with a smart strategic attack on Pakistan

Writer

Rasheed Kidwai Rasheed Kidwai @rasheedkidwai

Journalist-author Rasheed Kidwai is a visiting fellow of ORF]

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