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Congress keeps nose to the grindstone

Party has abandoned its usual practice of announcing the list barely hours before the deadline for filing nominations

By Sanjay K. Jha in New Delhi

  • Published 22.03.19, 2:12 AM
  • Updated 22.03.19, 2:12 AM
Rahul Gandhi at an event in Bangalore on March 18, 2019
Rahul Gandhi at an event in Bangalore on March 18, 2019 Picture by PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has toured 11 states, addressed 10 public meetings and held 14 interactions since the general election was announced on March 10 in an unusually intense campaign by a party that is perceived to be not as energetic as the Narendra Modi-led BJP.

The Congress has also declared the names of 146 candidates for the April-May polls, abandoning its usual practice of announcing the list barely hours before the deadline for filing nominations.

The new entrant, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, has also started campaigning in full swing, sharing her brother Rahul’s burden in key states.

Congress sources said that in addition to his extensive tours, Rahul has held numerous meetings for candidate selection, chalking out the campaign strategy and working on alliances.

The states Rahul has covered so far include Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura, in addition to addressing a booth workers’ convention in Delhi.

Although the party has attracted severe criticism for not completing the coalition-making exercise while the BJP stitched up all the loose ends well in time, Congress leaders claim that all vital alliances were struck in advance while unforeseen circumstances created both possibilities and controversies in Delhi.

A leader explained: “There was no plan for an alliance with the AAP in Delhi, but a situation developed under pressure from senior Opposition leaders. There are genuine complexities, and claims that the Congress messed up alliances, on the basis of (what happened in) Delhi, are unreasonable.”

Another bone of contention is Bihar, where the identification of seats to be contested by the partners has turned troublesome.

“We don’t want to discuss issues related to Bihar publicly as it can create bitterness. But we are not solely responsible for the delay as confusion persisted in every camp,” the Congress leader said.

The complexities in Bihar were such that the Congress was asked to vacate seats where it has sitting MPs, such as Katihar and Kishanganj.

In Bengal, the coalition efforts have collapsed, which senior Congress leaders have attributed to the Left’s sudden inflexible stand.

A veteran Congress leader from Bengal told The Telegraph: “It is tragic, very unfortunate. It was a classic example of how not to conduct alliance talks. The Left practically offered only six seats to the Congress. If we have to surrender our interests meekly and accept this offer to appear sincere about coalition-making, we are sorry to differ. Through this illogical decision, the Left has ensured that both parties suffer miserably in the state.”

The most crucial states for alliances in Congress calculations were Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. While Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were wrapped up satisfactorily in time, the Congress was not at fault in the big state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress was kicked out by the BSP’s Mayawati and the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav even before the parties could come to the negotiating table despite Rahul’s public commitment to join the proposed “grand alliance”.

The SP-BSP chose to distribute seats among themselves, leaving only Amethi and Rae Bareli for the Congress.

No Congress leader, either in Uttar Pradesh or in New Delhi, was prepared to digest this insult as that would amount to folding up the party organisation in the most critical region of the country.

The Congress desperately waited for a reasonable offer, even 9-10 seats, but Mayawati indulged in hostile posturing instead of creating a bridge with the prospective ally. Even now, the Congress has not responded to the barbs in the hope of a last-minute change of heart as Priyanka’s forays have stirred the poll cauldron.

The Congress hasn’t unveiled its campaign theme so far, but Rahul has already declared the key features in instalments, much before any other party launched its campaign.

Rahul’s promise of minimum income guarantee has reached the masses and is dominating the public discourse. Other announcements such as 33 per cent reservation for women in government jobs and right to health care have also generated curiosity.

Congress strategists don’t share the perception of a suspended take-off and faltering start and assert that Rahul and Priyanka have laid the foundation of a powerful campaign that is going to peak at the right time.

The party strategists also justify the plan for short bursts as a protracted campaign requires huge resources.