"What UPA? There's no UPA now. We'll decide on it together." Not surprisingly, this quote by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee became the highlight of her visit to Mumbai this week. She said this soon after her meeting with Sharad Pawar, begging the question whether the Nationalist Congress Party strongman, a Congress ally, supports her remarks.
Pawar, however, was far more restrained and said, "There is no question of excluding anyone. All those who are against the BJP are welcome to join us… The point is to take everyone together. Those who are ready to work hard, ready to work with everyone, should be taken along".
Their posturing needs to be seen in the context of the internal dynamics within the Congress. But more on that later. First, what exactly are Banerjee and Pawar trying to say?
WHAT'S MAMATA AND PAWAR'S MESSAGE FOR THE CONGRESS?
Though different in tone and tenor, Banerjee and Pawar seem to have a common message if one reads between the lines.
When Banerjee says, "There's no UPA", she basically means that a non-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance that is dominated by one party is no longer viable.
Pawar is saying the same thing more politely. His message is that the Congress is welcome to join but it can no longer call the shots.
Though they didn't say it in as many words, both Banerjee and Pawar's main problem seems to be with former Congress President Rahul Gandhi.
This was clear when Banerjee said, "You can’t be abroad most of the time. Continuous endeavour is necessary in politics.”
Pawar's comment that "Those who are ready to work hard, ready to work with everyone should be taken along" also seems in the same direction.
THE IMMINENT CHANGE OF GUARD IN THE CONGRESS
Banerjee and Pawar's posturing needs to be seen in the context of the imminent change of guard in the Congress that's due in the second half of 2022.
As things stand today, it does seem that this would mean a return of Rahul Gandhi at the helm of affairs in the Congress.
While this would add a great deal of clarity and coherence to the Congress especially regarding leadership and ideology, it may alienate some sections within the party as well.
Many of the G-23 leaders may not be particularly enthused about Rahul Gandhi 2.0. Then at the state level, too, Gandhi's return would alter power equations in favour of one faction and against another.
Pawar and Banerjee are both former Congress leaders and have a very good understanding of the party. They also have several friends who are still in the Congress.
When the churn in Congress takes place next year, Banerjee and Pawar may want to be in a position to provide an alternative to the disgruntled elements exiting the Congress at various levels.
The belief in the TMC is that by absorbing disgruntled Congressmen, the party is serving two purposes – expanding its own footprint and also preventing these elements from going to the BJP.
The possible return of Rahul Gandhi at the helm is related to another aspect of Banerjee and Pawar's plan.
THE CREATION OF AN OPPOSITION ACCEPTABLE TO CORPORATES
Both Banerjee and Pawar seem to be clear on one aspect, that if the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are reduced to a contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, it would lead to another BJP win.
Their main problem with the Congress, particularly with Rahul Gandhi, isn't just the allegedly inefficient and unilateral way of functioning. It is also the perception that Gandhi is not acceptable to corporates.
Though Gandhi has never openly spoken out against corporate India as a whole, his critics say that his attacks on certain industrial houses have created a trust deficit, which in turn has helped the BJP. It is no secret that the BJP gets a disproportionately large share of corporate funding. According to 2018 data, the party got 92 percent of all corporate funding, about 12 times that of the other six national parties put together.
It is no coincidence that many of the G-23 leaders are also those who are known to have good ties with India Inc.
With the Modi government's below par performance on the economic front, leaders like Pawar and Banerjee seem to believe that corporates would be willing to back an Opposition provided it is not openly hostile towards big corporate houses.
Therefore, the pitch for an Opposition alliance that's not dominated by the Congress.
HOW VIABLE IS SUCH AN ALTERNATIVE?
One needs to be realistic here. The TMC's influence presently is only in West Bengal, which has 42 seats in the Lok Sabha and a few states in the Northeast. As things stand today, the TMC can at most be in the reckoning in 50 seats.
The NCP is present in Maharashtra, Goa, and a few Union Territories, again not amounting to much more than 50 seats. And even in Maharashtra, it would be dependent on an alliance with either the Congress or the Shiv Sena or both, to get a significant tally.
Therefore, these two parties put together are in the reckoning only in about 100 seats between them.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress won 52 seats and came second in 196, making it a significant player in at least 248 seats. There are about 160 seats in the country, where the Congress is the main challenger to the BJP. The party presently only has 10 of those seats.
The problem for the Banerjee-Pawar duo is that even if they bring on board non-aligned regional parties like Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSRCP, Samajwadi Party, Left Parties, Aam Aadmi Party, and Janata Dal (Secular) and even arrive at some kind of understanding with Congress allies like the DMK, Shiv Sena, RJD, JMM, IUML etc, they would still need the Congress to perform well in the 160-plus seats in which it is the main challenger to the BJP.
So, while the two parties need to acknowledge the centrality of the Congress, it is also true that the grand old party has shrunk significantly and it can no longer call the shots within the Opposition the way it did in 2004 and 2009. Therefore any Opposition alliance, whether UPA or by any other name, may require very different power equations between the constituents.