Out of my mind: Cong chances in a three-cornered fight

Meghnad Desai
The surprise in the campaign is the failure of the Grand Alliance to emerge. (PTI Photo)

The election campaign has been predictable so far. The Opposition thinks it has to overcome any advantage Narendra Modi may milk out of Balakot. So the focus is on attacking Modi personally about Rafale. Modi may have weaknesses but personal corruption is not one of them. In this, he is very much like his predecessor Manmohan Singh. But as the Opposition has not put forward any new policy proposal, this is as good as they can do.

The surprise in the campaign is the failure of the Grand Alliance to emerge. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP-BSP bandhan will run against the Congress as well as the BJP. In Delhi, AAP will do the same. In Bihar, the Congress played hardball with the RJD and in West Bengal, the Congress and CPM have decided to go their own ways. Only in the south has the Congress agreed to join with the JD(S) in Karnataka and the DMK in Tamil Nadu.

What is going on? My best guess is that Rahul Gandhi has decided the Congress has to go it alone if it is to recover its position as the top party. The decision is a risky one. From 44 seats to get back to the sunny uplands of being the largest single party, is a daunting task. It would require at least two elections, especially against a formidable campaigner like Modi. It seemed like that was the plan at first. Get to 100 plus this time with the help of regional satraps and then get to the top in 2024.

Rahul seems to have a more ambitious plan. Having won Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and being reasonably strong in Bihar, getting UP in the bag secures the Hindi heartland for the Congress. That is where Priyanka Gandhi Vadra comes in. By giving her Eastern UP, Rahul has declared that getting UP back is a higher priority for the Congress than defeating Modi.

Priyanka signals not only a person evoking the memories of Indira, but being a family member, can be safely trusted with the prize. Her presence makes the Congress ambition clear. The family wants UP back. Priyanka is less abrasive than Rahul and more willing to play a supporting role unlike Mamata Banerjee or Chandrababu Naidu. Above all, her presence makes the succession clear. Rahul has no heirs so far. Priyanka has children.

So we could have a three-cornered contest: the Congress with its select partners, an anti-BJP coalition of regional parties, and the BJP/NDA. There will also be small local parties. It is anyone's guess who will hurt whom. It may yet be that for the Congress, the Madhya Pradesh/Rajasthan triumph may not be repeatable at the general election. In Bihar, with Lalu Prasad gone, Tejashwi Yadav may not deliver the seats required. UP will not be easy to prise back from the BJP. It was lost by Narasimha Rao, the first non-UP Congress Prime Minister, when he allowed the Babri Masjid to be destroyed.

What the voters will decide is anyone's guess. The best guess is that the current ranking of the top two largest parties, the BJP and the Congress, will remain. The BJP will have twice the number of seats as the Congress or even three times. That is better than the current six to one ratio. Rahul Gandhi could call it a success.