Election 2019: Why Congress Might Regret Shunning AAP in Delhi


Election 2019: Why Congress Might Regret Shunning AAP in Delhi

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Since 1996, each government that has ruled India has been a coalition. Even now, talks of a united opposition have continuously done the rounds. Though a majority of regional leaders claim they intend to kick out the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, precious little has been done to cement alliances on the ground. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have refused to shake Priyanka Gandhi’s hand in Uttar Pradesh, and now the Congress has done the same to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. Though in UP they might kiss and make up, with its decision to go it alone in Delhi, the Congress party seems to have shot itself in the foot. In refusing to ally with AAP, the Congress seemingly not only overestimates its prowess in a region where it doesn’t even have a toe inside the door, let alone a foot, but also undermines the benefits of a relatively low-risk, yet high-reward alliance with AAP.

Coalition politics, though it firmly took centre-stage only in 1996 with the formation of the United Front, had begun to play a role in the governance of India from as early as 1977 with the formation of the Janata Party. Though the prevailing wisdom behind these alliances is that of opportunism, academicians like Sanjay Ruparelia have argued that the alliances have benefited the country and the politics it practices. In his book Divided We Govern, he writes , “Ultimately, the vicissitudes of India’s coalition politics heightened political agency. In particular, it forced competing party leaders to exercise sound political judgment. They had to comprehend the possibilities and constraints of specific historical contexts, only partly shaped by their beliefs, desires and practices.” Basically, the absence of complete power can also lead to the exercise of sensitive power. Though India’s first three coalition governments never even completed their tenures – hence the hesitation – the last two decades have proved the model is unavoidable, and only makes sense.

But idealism in politics is fickle. The Congress, which has neither an MLA nor an MP in Delhi, believes it can do without any support. This might be a miscalculation on multiple fronts. The first being that in the case of Delhi, AAP has over its years in the assembly built a steady reputation, one that can only be emboldened by the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Whatever the final results, AAP is certain to give the BJP a run for its money on the seats it chooses to fight on. Secondly, AAP is a relatively low-risk ally, in that its national ambitions have long been given a reality check, and that its reputation as a workmanlike office can only bode well for Congress’ image of privileged lackeys. There was much more to gain here for the Congress, than there was to lose for AAP.

Add to that the fact that Congress could have had the opportunity to play the bigger person here. Let’s not forget that AAP rose through a movement against Manmohan Singh’s Congress and in Delhi, it swatted the Sheila Dikshit government like a fly off the windshield of Indian politics. To come around and propose, albeit begrudgingly, that the need of the hour – the ouster of BJP’s seven sitting MPs in Delhi – is far greater than petty negotiations would have been welcomed by the public. Here, the Grand Old Party would have received an apparatus already in place on the ground, a voice that resonates with Delhi’s youth, and a government that though invisible recently on the national front has done credible work during its reign in the capital. All of which the Congress believes it can account for by campaigning alone.

Reluctance on part of the Congress could also be put down to the fact that in the eyes of some AAP’s popularity has either waned or can be outperformed by Rahul Gandhi & Co. Kejriwal’s party suffered significantly against the Congress in Punjab in the 2017 assembly elections and most recently lost the civic polls to the BJP in Delhi. That said, one was an election on turf (Punjab) where AAP is yet to establish itself and the other is traditionally a BJP stronghold (corporations). Further the likelihood of seat-sharing, proposed as an equal divide by AAP, could have been a bone of contention as well, considering how the Congress has forgotten its last two ducks in the capital.

Reluctance on part of the Congress could also be put down to the fact that in the eyes of some AAP’s popularity has either waned or can be outperformed by Rahul Gandhi & Co.

The counter-argument to this can only be that the Congress is either confident of its own performance or believes it will reap the rewards of incumbency against the BJP. Arvind Kejriwal might have become more politician than activist since forming the government in the capital, but his is a reign that continues to produce results in city. Leveraging this goodwill could only help Congress re-enter a territory where they were embarrassed and beaten not too long ago. There is then the rivalry between former CM and now Delhi Congress president Sheila Dikshit and Kejriwal, the man she was replaced by via an anti-corruption movement that pretty much enveloped her political career.

The Congress might think it has bigger fish to fry, like UP, but the importance of a few hands-on-deck in Delhi cannot be undervalued. This is a political circle that inevitably makes headlines, and captures the imagination of the country. To risk sitting out the next term as well, all for the want of a leg-up on a former bitter rival is as naïve as it is Congress-like. AAP has since its formation transformed to the extent that its days of anti-Congress agitation feel like a blur. Even if they were remembered, the questions would have been for Kejriwal to answer and not the Congress, who could have pretended to magnanimously see the bigger picture. But magnanimity, even as a political ploy, is perhaps a step too far for the Grand Old Party.