Arvind Kejriwal has an uncanny ability to confuse and confound the Congress. While Delhi’s wily chief minister has escalated his row with the Lieutenant Governor into a larger battle for the protection of federalism and garnered support from all regional Opposition leaders in the process, the Congress has the Bharatiya Janata Party for company in its never-ending grudge match against the Aam Aadmi Party for the 2015 electoral humiliation.
A Bad Move by Congress
The ongoing crisis in Delhi presented the Congress with an opportunity to provide the platform Rahul Gandhi spoke of, for Opposition parties to make common cause on issues in the battle against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. Instead, it has ended up on the same side of the fence as the BJP with both national parties using almost the same language to blast Kejriwal.
A resolution passed by the Delhi Congress condemned Kejriwal’s “air-conditioned dharna politics’’. Ironically, this was a term used by the BJP to criticise the AAP leader.
The optics is not doing the Congress any good in its efforts to build and lead a united Opposition against Modi for the 2019 elections. It had scored brownie points with Opposition regional satraps by propping up a Janata Dal (Secular)-led government in Karnataka, despite winning more seats. But by joining the BJP on the anti-Kejriwal bandwagon, some of this goodwill has evaporated.
More significantly, regional chieftains have once again snatched the momentum away from the Congress and rapped out a reminder that they, not the grand old party, are the drivers of Opposition unity. The Congress is welcome to join but on terms set by regional bosses.
Regional Parties Back Kejriwal
The line-up in support of Kejriwal was impressive. Four chief ministers – Mamata Banerjee, HD Kumaraswamy, Chandrababu Naidu and Pinarayi Vijayan – called on Kejriwal’s wife to express solidarity. They also spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to urge him to intervene and resolve the governance crisis in Delhi. The following day, a host of Opposition leaders including Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav and Communist Party of India’s D Raja queued up to call on Kejriwal’s Cabinet colleagues who had been hospitalised on health grounds.
Interestingly, virtually every single regional party, including allies of the BJP like Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (United), have supported Kejriwal on the issue of federalism and the demand for the Centre to duly respect elected state governments.
The Congress is clearly out of sync with its would-be allies for 2019. It has come out as a prisoner of petty politics, unable to forgive and forget the way AAP bowled it out for a duck in 2015. It looks like the other side of the same coin as the BJP, which too has been waging a vendetta against the AAP government in Delhi since 2015.
While the AAP is guilty of indulging in unbecoming theatrics and unduly politicising trivial issues, there is no defence for the manner in which the BJP government at the Centre has worked through the Lt Governor’s office to obstruct and cripple Kejriwal’s government at every step.
For every regional leader, federalism and non-interference from the Centre are critical issues. Clearly, the Congress doesn’t attach the same importance to them. Like the BJP, it has a national party’s perspective and believes in a strong Centre rather than a loose confederation of states that regional parties would like India to be.
Can Congress Afford to Give Up ‘Capital’ Space?
The Delhi crisis has exposed chinks in the rosy picture of Opposition unity flashed from Bengaluru the day Kumaraswamy was sworn in as the chief minister of Karnataka. It’s easy enough to stand on the same platform and raise arms in unison in a show of togetherness. The devil lies in the details of crafting an alliance between parties with differing perspectives.
Another problem for the Congress has emerged through the Delhi governance crisis. Kejriwal is emerging as a bone of contention in the efforts to put together an anti-Modi collective for 2019. He has strong and vocal supporters in Mamata Banerjee and Akhilesh Yadav who want to offer space to Kejriwal in a potential federal front.
Suggestions are being floated for the Congress to agree to a seat-sharing arrangement with the AAP for Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats. Can the Congress afford to give up political space in the capital which was once its fiefdom?
The Congress is already under terrific pressure from all potential allies to accommodate them in various states. The Bahujan Samaj Party is demanding seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. The Samajwadi Party is demanding seats in MP. The JD(S) will drive a hard bargain in Karnataka as will the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.
In its current weakened state, the Congress has very little elbow room to negotiate. Ultimately, it will have to take a call on how much it’s willing to downsize itself in the battle against Modi. It is clear that 2019 will be the year of the regional parties. And much to the Congress party’s dismay, Kejriwal has managed to gain entry into this power club.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. 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.)