West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee looks calm and peaceful this election year and the credit for that goes to her opponents, the Left and the Congress. The two Opposition parties' struggle in reaching a consensus on an alliance with each other to defeat the Trinamool Congress (TMC) will assure the latter, which looks strong ahead of this year's Assembly election.
But while Mamata will be happy as an alliance between her two opponents will erode credibility of their respective leadership at both local and federal levels, the Congress will face even a far more serious challenge in handling the issue than the CPI(M) and the words by its vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Kerala recently makes that evident.
Rahul was seen walking a tightrope in Kerala while speaking on that state's election issues. He took on the BJP---the common enemy to easily target---besides backing the Congress as the only alternative to itself. It is not that he did not take on the Left, but that was not satisfactory enough for the state's Congress leaders.
The Congress high command will perhaps give up under pressure of the party leaders in Bengal who have shown a rare unity in support of the alliance with the CPI(M). But it will do so with a hesitant heart.
Lok Sabha 2019 is a far bigger cause for the Gandhis than a state it has long lost
For the top leadership of the Congress, the Lok Sabha election in 2019 is a much bigger cause to fight for than the Assembly election in Bengal, a state where the party has long been reduced into a fringe player. It needs a support to do well in Bengal (in 2001 and 2011, it was the Trinamool Congress) and has virtually no face to lead its campaign independently. In Bengal, the Congress is a name of a number of disjointed groups that look after their own pockets of supremacy. True, the Congress had come to power in Bengal in 2011 in alliance with the TMC but it was more of a Mamata show.
Congress will need Mamata's help if it harbours any hope of returning to power in 2019
To focus on reviving the party from such a state looks a meaningless exercise for the Gandhis as they themselves have a much difficult task in hand at the national level. Reduced to just 44 MPs in the last Lok Sabha election and losing in one state after another, the Congress's central leadership has a serious stake in the next general elections. One more big loss and it could be rendered irrelevant nationally. And let's face it. An alliance with the CPI(M) will not do the Congress's base in Bengal any stronger so that it can make a bigger impact in the Lok Sabha polls in that state on its own.
Given this challenge, the Congress high command will never like to put its relation with Mamata in a jeopardy by forging an alliance with the Left for Bengal sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha and Mamata is still a force with the biggest claim on those numbers. If at all there is a hung Parliament, the TMC's support will be needed the most by the Congress if it gets an opportunity to dethrone Narendra Modi.
Congress is anyway a strong force in Kerala which though sends 22 MPs less than Bengal
Kerala, on the other hand, sends 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha and the Congress, still being a strong player in that state, sends many of them. Currently, eight MPs from Kerala are from the Congress (12 in all from the UPA). An alliance with the CPI(M) in Bengal can have an adverse impact on the psyche of the Kerala Congress and as a result, on the MP count. In that case, the Congress will stand to lose from both the states nationally.
Bengal Congress is just living another day, but the Gandhis have their pride at stake
In Bengal, the Congress is just fighting to live another day and the state leadership's demand for an alliance is part of a desperate attempt to remain relevant. But for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the battle involves a much larger question of redeeming the lost pride. A short-sighted alliance with the CPI(M) will have every potential to derail the high command's long-term objective.