It is a marriage no one, not even the guests at the ceremony at the majestic Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, expects to last too long. The proverbial seven-year itch for the Congress-JDS alliance is expected to arrive within a year or less, with pressure on both partners to keep the relationship going at least till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
It is easy to dismiss the show of hands in the forecourt of the seat of power in Karnataka as a mere photo-op of several prime ministerial hopefuls, aspiring to unseat Narendra Modi.
The list is long – from Mamata Banerjee to Rahul Gandhi to Mayawati to Chandrababu Naidu to even a HD Deve Gowda looking to fulfil his 1997 vow of emerging like a phoenix from the ashes.
But do not make the mistake of looking at Bengaluru 2018 as a Linkedin-like platform.
Go Local – A New Mantra for 2019
In the context of the polarised politics of India, it is a significant statement of intent. That politics in India, from a national perspective, has become all about being with Modi and against Modi. In arithmetical terms, the fight is between the 31 percent of India who voted for Modi in 2014 and the 69 percent who did not. The plan, in simple terms, is to capture that 69 percent.
This means revisiting the old adage ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. The realisation has dawned on regional satraps that if they continue fighting each other, the BJP will steamroll over them with Modi making it a presidential contest against Rahul Gandhi. ‘Go local’, therefore, is the mantra.
The JD(S) has been perhaps the first to realise this. When HD Kumaraswamy met Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi to invite them for the swearing-in ceremony, he told them that he would like to have a long-term relationship with the Congress.
Rahul reportedly agreed, an indication of his assessment after the Karnataka campaign. He knows if the Congress has to ensure BJP does not walk away with a majority of the 28 seats in Karnataka, he needs to ensure the overlapping votebanks of the Congress and JD(S) do not split their votes.
Understanding Individual Gains
But this show of unity is not scratch-proof. Each regional chieftain will look at the national picture from the prism of his or her state politics. So while Akhilesh and Mayawati will share a laugh, both will be wary of one gaining strength at the expense of the other. While Gorakhpur and Phulpur were success stories for the SP-BSP combo attack, the real test will come in Kairana byelection on 28 May, where the BJP is putting its best foot forward. An opposition victory here will show a strong index of opposition unity can best Modi and Shah.
The picture of the day was Sonia Gandhi and Mayawati hugging each other, an indication that the Congress, in order to stitch together a pan-India narrative, will be willing to pitch the BSP boss for the top job. This will have the effect of consolidating the Dalit votebank in every state, something the BJP could find difficult to counter.
The flip side is that this could also lead to a significant upper-caste and OBC reverse consolidation throughout the country, leaving the opposition bruised and left with just the Dalit and minority vote.
It was significant that Chandrababu Naidu returned to share a platform with the Congress, the party he had started his political innings in in the 1970s. With relations with the NDA a thing of the past, Naidu will be on neutral gear vis-a-vis the Congress since the party, after its decision to bifurcate, is a zero in Andhra.
Who Gave the Congregation a Miss, and Why?
Just like the presence of Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Yadav, Sharad Pawar, and Ajit Singh was important, the absentees mattered as well.
K Chandrasekhar Rao zipped in and out of Bengaluru the previous day to greet Gowda and son. Though he had a ready excuse in having to chair the collectors' conference in Hyderabad on Wednesday, the fact that he was averse to be seen on the same stage as the Gandhis was apparent. Naveen Patnaik is another one who stayed away.
It also should not be ignored that while this grouping is attracting a strong regional party from every state, it is also leaving behind the other regional force. So if DMK was on board (though MK Stalin skipped the event due to Tuticorin developments), the AIADMK was left out. If Naidu was in, Jaganmohan Reddy is out. Both these parties are expected to do business with the BJP, clandestinely or otherwise. So the BJP can explore these new friendships.
What the Karnataka election and the coalition government it has led to has shown is the shrinking of the Congress at least in terms of an inability to convert a healthy vote share into seats. The party has seen the writing on the wall and is therefore willing to play at the non-striker's end, giving the regional partner more of the strike. The success of the partnership will finally depend on whether the two can run well between the wickets.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)