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Within INDIA, the Congress' Problem is Lack of Credibility. Can Kharge Fix That?

The proposal to project him as the PM face is essentially aimed at ensuring that Rahul Gandhi is out of the race.

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Held against the backdrop of the mass suspension of opposition Members from Parliament (MP) in the ongoing winter session, it was expected that the fourth meeting of the I.N.D.I.A (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc would put up a united front and come out with a concrete plan of action to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The leaders of 28 political parties that met in Delhi on Tuesday did resolve to complete their seat-sharing negotiations this month, hold countrywide protests against the suspension of opposition MPs on 22 December, and launch their joint election rallies by January-end.

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Kharge for PM: A Suprising and Confusing Proposal  

Their declaration to put up a united fight was overtaken, however, by the surprise proposal by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and seconded by her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal, that the opposition bloc project Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as the I.N.D.I.A bloc’s prime ministerial face. ”He could be the country’s first Dalit Prime Minister,” Banerjee is reported to have said at the meeting.

Predictably, this suggestion led to confusion among those present as it was evident that Banerjee and Kejriwal had not consulted the other opposition leaders in this regard. In fact, until a day before the meeting, Banerjee had told the media that the opposition parties would pick their prime ministerial candidate after the elections.

While Janata Dal (U) chief Nitish Kumar was clearly upset with this proposal, the other leaders were ambivalent with Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray stating that though his party had no objection to Kharge being projected as the bloc’s PM’s face, it was more important that the I.N.D.I.A alliance first picks a convenor who can be tasked with coordinating its plans and programmes in the run-up to the general election.

As it is, regional parties have been unhappy with the Congress for delaying the seat-sharing talks and its inability to fight the BJP in states where the two parties are pitted against each other in a direct contest.

But the big question is: will the Congress agree to Kharge’s projection as the prime ministerial face of the opposition bloc? Though a section of the Congress would only be too happy to endorse Kharge’s candidature, the more vocal Nehru-Gandhi family loyalists will continue to root for Rahul Gandhi. Mamata Banerjee’s suggestion would not have pleased the Congress leadership as it would rather that such a move be initiated by the party and not by its allies.

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The Proposal is Essentially Aimed at Rahul Gandhi

It was left to Kharge to clear the air when he pointed out that the top priority of the I.N.D.I.A alliance is to win first and get a majority and that the prime minister would be decided subsequently by the MPs.

While the meeting side-stepped the contentious issue of declaring a prime ministerial candidate, Mamata Banerjee and Kejriwal’s reasons for putting forth Kharge’s name for the top post were not lost on the Congress. The proposal is essentially aimed at ensuring that Rahul Gandhi is out of the race for the prime ministerial post.

This would also make it difficult for the BJP to mock and attack a senior and well-respected Dalit leader like Kharge as it has been doing in the case of Rahul Gandhi for the last ten years.

Banerjee and Kejriwal did not go into the reasons for their proposal, but it will be argued that as a Dalit, Kharge’s caste credentials can prove to be a winner. Though he is better known in the South, the fact that Kharge speaks Hindi is also cited as a plus in his favour.

Besides, Kharge’s projection has the potential to build a social coalition of scheduled castes, backward classes, and minorities in favour of the opposition bloc. It could set up a good fight in the key states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (U), and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have a social base that can be further expanded with the addition of Dalit voters, especially since Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati has been absent from the fight.

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Congress' Challenges: Credibility and Seat Sharing

While all this is in the realm of speculation, the I.N.D.I.A alliance faces an uphill task in challenging the BJP, and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as they currently appear invincible. The opposition parties, especially the Congress, have to build credibility and put forth a convincing agenda before the electorate.

Though dispirited over its losses in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, the BJP has reason to feel confident after its recent victories in the three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan which once again showed that the Congress is way behind when the two parties are pitted against each other.

There are as many as 190 Lok Sabha seats where the Congress and the BJP are battling each other. The BJP starts with the advantage of having won 175 seats in 2019 and, from all accounts, is still ahead of the Congress even after five years in office. The party’s winning formula, which combines Modi’s appeal with a strong OBC base and aggressive communal polarisation, continues to resonate with the people. The construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya will be further used by the BJP to whip up religious sentiment.

Not only does the Congress face the tough task of coming up with a renewed strategy to battle the BJP in direct contests, but it will soon have another challenge on its hands when it starts seat-sharing talks with the I.N.D.I.A bloc leaders. No longer in a position to call the shots after its drubbing in recent state elections, the Congress will have to battle hard to get a respectable share of seats in states like Delhi, Punjab, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The Samajwadi Party is not expected to be generous to the Congress and the same can be expected of the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party in their respective states. It was suggested at the I.N.D.I.A bloc meeting that the Congress focus on fighting 300 seats but should be willing to play second fiddle in states where regional parties have a base.

When it sits down for formal bargaining with its I.N.D.I.A alliance partners, the Congress will have to show what it brings to the table. Not an easy task given its recent poll reverses.

(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at @anitaakat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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