A famous Bengali song, a favourite of the father of the nation, says, “If no one comes in response to your call, then walk alone”. The Congress has lived by this motto, especially so after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the head of the National Democratic Alliance. It believed that under the leadership of Ms Sonia Gandhi it was in a position to challenge the domination of the BJP and to defeat it. It has now realized, after a lot of soul-searching, that this was wishful thinking. The secular, non-BJP space in Indian politics has become far too fractured for one party to completely command that space. For this fracturing the Congress has to share part of the responsibility. It lost the support of the Muslims in north India; after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and the communal riots that followed, the Muslims could no longer see the Congress as their protector. This failure coincided with the rise of caste-based parties in the Hindi heartland resulting in the loss of the Dalit support which the Congress had enjoyed since the first general election. The Nineties thus saw a new configuration in Indian politics: the rise of the BJP, the emergence of the caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the swing of the Muslims away from the Congress and the consequent eclipse of the Congress. In the sprawling cow-belt of north India, according to many the decisive field of Indian politics, the Congress competes in the election race as an also-ran.
The realization and the acknowledgement of its plight are the principal upshot of the conclave which the Congress held recently in Shimla. The deliberations have led to two important decisions. One, that the BJP has to be defeated at any cost. Two, the much-desired defeat of the BJP cannot be accomplished by the Congress alone. The latter needs to form and, if necessary, lead a political formation of like-minded political parties who are all eager to oust the BJP from power and the dominance it now seems to enjoy. The Congress is thus now a party in search of allies. Its success in this enterprise will largely depend on how far it is able to reduce its larger-than-life image to more realistic proportions. There is an inherent tendency in the Congress, growing out of its past days of glory, to rather overplay the big brother image. This, unless it is curbed, will not win the Congress many allies.
Power is a magnet for political allies. This may turn out to be the Congress’s chief liability. The formation of an alliance to defeat the BJP will not have ideology (read secularism) as its basis. On the contrary, it will have as its foundation cold-blooded calculation regarding vote-sharing and the loaves and fishes of office. There is many a slip between the call for an alliance and its actualization. On the process will inevitably fall the shadow of leadership. The runway ahead is full of bumps if the alliance does take off, the flight-path full of air-pockets. To walk together is often more difficult than the lofty ideal of walking alone and aloof.