The absence of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, the two star campaigners of the Congress, from the West Bengal assembly election scene has raised questions about the party’s strategy in the state. Elections to the 294 assembly seats in Bengal are being held in eight phases. By April 10, polling would be over for 135 seats in the first four phases. Yet, no member of the Gandhi family has addressed a single rally in the state so far.
This is in sharp contrast to the party’s campaigns in the other three states going to polls, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu besides the Union territory of Puducherry. While Rahul spent most of his time in the past two months in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Priyanka addressed rallies in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala before she had to isolate herself on April 2 after husband Robert Vadra tested positive for Covid.
Several senior Congress leaders say not campaigning in Bengal in the first four phases was a conscious move by the Gandhis. In Bengal, the Congress is in an alliance with the Left parties while in Kerala it is engaged in a fierce battle against the incumbent Left Democratic Front (LDF). While campaigning in Kerala, Rahul had likened the Left to the BJP. “The Left Front is as divisive as the BJP. It’s interesting that the prime minister spends every single day talking about a Congress-mukt Bharat. I have never heard him say Left Front-mukt Bharat or Kerala,” Rahul said. Drawing similar comparisons, Congress general secretary and CWC (Congress Working Committee) member Randeep Singh Surjewala told india today that Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan was a ‘Modi (PM Narendra Modi) in a dhoti’.
Congress strategists believe Rahul campaigning with Left leaders in Bengal would have hurt the party’s prospects in Kerala. This, they argue, was the reason the Gandhis, in February, turned down a request from the Bengal unit of the Congress to attend a rally called by the Left at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground a.k.a. the Maidan. They apparently did not want to be seen sharing the dais with the Left.
At the same time, the Gandhis did not want to embarrass the Bengal Congress unit over their attacks on the LDF. So, most national Congress leaders stayed away from Bengal till April 6, when polling ended in Kerala. “Certainly, this dichotomy of joining hands with the Left in one state and fighting against it in another has been a dilemma for our top leadership. But I’m sure they’ll campaign in Bengal in the subsequent polling phases,” says Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, president of the Congress in Bengal and leader of the party in the Lok Sabha.
The BJP did not miss the all-too-apparent duality in the Congress’s ties with the Left. Referring to Vijayan’s comment that the Congress cannot be trusted, Union minister Prakash Javadekar had, in a tweet in March, questioned how the CPI(M) had struck an alliance with the Congress in Bengal.
A section of Congress leaders, off the record, claim that Rahul has been staying away from West Bengal as he is unhappy about the state unit’s decision to join hands with the Left against Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC). They claim Rahul was keen on an alliance with the TMC to prevent a split in the anti-BJP vote.
Chowdhury dismisses such speculation. “The Congress high command, including Rahul Gandhi, left decisions about the election strategy in Bengal to the state unit. He did not interfere and always supported our decisions,” he says.
Surjewala also denies any confusion in the party over ties with the Left. He maintains that the Congress national leadership did not campaign in Bengal in the first four phases as the party contested only a handful of seats in these phases. Of the 91 seats the Congress is contesting, only 20 went to polls in the first four phases. “Rahul Gandhi will soon start campaigning in Bengal. Most of the seats we are contesting are in the later phases,” says Surjewala. Malda, Murshidabad, central Bengal and north Bengal, where the party has a brighter chance, will go to polls in the upcoming phases.
Importantly, the Gandhis have been spending more time in states where they fancy the Congress has a chance to come to power. In Assam and Kerala, the Congress is the main challenger to the ruling party. In Tamil Nadu, it’s a junior partner in the main opposition alliance led by the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). “What’s the point of Rahul Gandhi wasting time in Bengal where the Congress’s chances are, at best, to emerge as the no. 3 party?” asks a Congress general secretary.
According to a CWC member, Rahul’s office has asked the party’s Bengal unit to indicate dates and locations for campaigning in the state. The former Congress president is likely to campaign in the last two or three phases. But according to a Lok Sabha MP of the party, even this plan might change. The Gandhis may skip the state altogether, particularly after Mamata’s letter to Sonia Gandhi and other opposition leaders for a joint strategy against the BJP after the current assembly polls.
Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra campaigns in the state
Owing to Sonia’s personal equation with Mamata, the Gandhis would want to avoid mounting any public attacks on the Bengal chief minister and her government. Several opposition parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party and Nationalist Congress Party, have already supported Mamata, alienating the Congress in the opposition camp.
In these circumstances, were they to campaign in Bengal, it would be untenable for the Gandhis to have Left and local Congress leaders target the Mamata government. So far, Bengal Congress leaders have been quite unsparing in their criticism of the Mamata regime. Chowdhury admits that Mamata’s letter to Sonia may add to the dilemma of the central leadership. And it could well mean that the Gandhis will choose to completely miss electioneering in West Bengal.
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