Why Sonia Gandhi's dinner diplomacy is fraught with problems

Some of the party leaders who attended the Congress leader's event are bitter rivals in their home states.

 |  6-minute read |   15-03-2018
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UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner on Tuesday, March 13, where leaders of 19 Opposition parties hobnobbed together.

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Opposition parties including SP, BSP, Trinamool Congress, CPM, CPI, NCP, RJD, JMM, NC, DMK, JD(S), AIUDF, JVM, RLD, BTP, HAM, RSP, Kerala Congress and IUML marked their presence. Out of the 20 Opposition parties, DMK, BSP, RLD, HAM, BTP and JVM don't have any representatives in the Lok Sabha.

The other 14 parties together have 71 Lok Sabha MPs, add to this, 48 MPs from the Congress and the tally goes up to 119. Prominent leaders who attended the dinner include NCP's Sharad Pawar, SP's Ram Gopal Yadav, CPI's D Raja, BSP's Satish Mishra, Trinamool's Sudip Bannerjee, NC's Omar Abdullah, DMK's Kanimozhi, CPM's Mohammad Salim, RJD's Tejashvi Yadav, and BTP's Sharad Yadav. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh and other key Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad also attended the dinner.

Sonia Gandhi is actually trying to test the political waters ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections with dinner diplomacy, though the Congress tried to show it as a "sign of amity and friendship".

Though she resigned from the presidentship of the grand old party in 2017, handing over the reins to her son Rahul Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi continues to be the face of the party for the Opposition. Congress is aware of the party's shrinking base which is no more in a position to win 160-170 seats.

To defeat the dominant BJP led by its invincible leader Narendra Modi, the Congress needs to unite the Opposition parties around the country, which is a Herculean task.

But the problem is that most Opposition parties hesitate to rally under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. That's why Sonia had to resurface in the political arena despite her unwillingness to play an active role in politics, given her health issues. It was Sonia's alliance strategy that worked for the party in 2004 and then in 2009.

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However, the situation today is no longer what it was in 2004. BJP then wasn't as powerful as it is in its current avatar, ruling 20 states across the country.

The party has been successful in becoming a pan-India party by beating the Congress which currently is in power in only three states - Karnataka, Punjab and Mizoram along with a Union territory, Puducherry.

Northeast once considered a bastion of the Congress has turned saffron except Mizoram, the state which goes to election later this year. The situation is very critical for the Congress party, as it is losing all its strongholds one after another. Though the Congress remains the largest Opposition party, there have been challenges from leaders like NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who has ambitions of leading the Opposition.

There are reports that Pawar will hold an Opposition meet in the last week of March. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is expected to be present at the meet though she was conspicuous by her absence from Sonia's dinner party. Sonia knows that Pawar is a clever and astute political player, who has friends across the political spectrum.

Also, Telangana chief minister and TRS chief Chandrasekhar Rao's third front initiatives are getting louder with support pouring in from regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray and DMK's MK Stalin. This should worry the Congress.

Pawar, KCR or Mamata flexing their muscles is not a good sign for the grand old party headed by its new president Rahul Gandhi, who has drawn criticism from several quarters for his political immaturity.

The most recent example was his ill-timed visit to Italy, knowing the fact that the mandate in Meghalaya would be fractured. Despite the Congress being the largest party with 21 seats in the new Assembly, BJP with only 2 seats in its kitty walked away with the state by integrating the regional parties into the fold of NDA.

By the time Rahul came back to India, the bastion of Meghalaya had turned saffron and he was left only with the option of blaming BJP for using money power to usurp the state from its hold.Some of the parties that attended Sonia's dinner party are bitter rivals in their home states. The Left and Trinamool Congress, for instance, are at loggerheads in West Bengal.

Also, the Congress itself is locked in a direct fight with the Left in Kerala. Though the cold relations between the two bitter rivals, SP and BSP, have started to thaw, it couldn't be a foregone conclusion given Mayawati's unpredictable nature, especially in alliances.

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Already, BSP, along with Pawar's NCP, has allied with the JD(S) in Karnataka, the only large Congress-ruled state, where the alliance is expected to eat into the Congress votes only to help the BJP. JD(S) chief Gowda himself was present at the dinner, yet the party hasn't disclosed its intentions with regard to a post-poll alliance in the state, if a such situation arises.

Former PM Gowda has formed alliances in the past with both the Congress and the BJP. He recently spoke about "burning his fingers" in the past due to an alliance with the Congress. Parties such as NCP and JD(S) are keeping their options open. BJP is also trying to develop good relations with the DMK.

PM Modi's recent veiled overtures to former Tripura chief minister, Manik Sarkar, also indicate that the party is trying to woo Sarkar, an anti-Congress CPM leader to keep up the opposition against party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who favours a tie-up with Congress.

In order to continue its victory march in this year's Assembly elections and the coming general elections, BJP wants to ensure that other parties do not rally behind the Congress and the grand old party stays divided.

Absence of prominent parties such as Andhra Pradesh's ruling party TDP and the main opposition YSR Congress, Telangana's ruling party TRS and Odisha's ruling party BJD clearly points that the Congress has failed to accommodate the prominent parties of these three states which together account for 46 Lok Sabha seats.

The upcoming Karnataka elections, where the Congress will fight the BJP to retain the state, are very crucial. If the grand old party fails in Karnataka, it would add a more negative grade to the already beleaguered party and help raise the stature of regional leaders such as Sharad Pawar, KCR and Mamata Banerjee. Politically speaking, the Congress has a long way to go if it wants to defeat the BJP.

Also read: UP by-polls verdict is a rejection of BJP, not support for SP-BSP

Writer

Sagarneel Sinha Sagarneel Sinha @sagarneelsinha

The writer is a freelance contributor who writes on politics, foreign affairs and Indian mythology.

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