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Congress: West Bengal Elections 2021: Congress caught between two stools

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ET Analysis:

It may be tempting, yet simplistic, to view the latest Congress tiff over the electoral tie-up in West Bengal with Furfura cleric Abbas Siddiqui-led Indian Secular Front (ISF) through the prism of the on-going dissension battle within the grand old party.

The concerns raised in the past few days reflect a larger debate over both political ideology and strategy, heard constantly in the corridors of Congress ever since its rapid decimation at the hands of the Narendra Modi-led BJP. BJP, under the Modi-Shah leadership, has furthered its nationalism plank by successfully labelling the Congress as a party guilty of ‘minority appeasement’ at the cost of the larger Hindu majority.

The fear of losing its Hindu base prompted Rahul Gandhi to don a self-professed image of a ‘Shiv Bhakt’ and then flaunting a sacred thread to claim his Kashmiri “KaulDattatreya gotra” origin. None of this found any electoral resonance, leaving many to wonder whether the recent videos of him doing pushups, swimming alongside fishermen in the sea is another tactical shift at carving out the fit, youthful image to counter BJP’s bluster.

That said, Congress’ fear is real. And Sonia Gandhi herself acknowledged in Mumbai three years ago: “BJP has managed to…convince people, to persuade people that the Congress party is a Muslim party. In my party, the great majority is Hindu. Yes, there are Muslims too. So I fail to understand this branding us as a Muslim party.” When asked on Rahul’s temple visits, she said: “There is a bit of that because we have been pushed into a corner.”

It was precisely this latent concern that saw many Congress leaders cautioning the party against “total opposition” to Centre’s decision on scrapping Article 370 and banning Triple Talaq. Many of these leaders, in fact, welcomed the unexpected post-poll alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. At the same time, Congress has also been unnerved by efforts to split its minority base, which is why it has fiercely resisted the expansion of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, a former ally-turned rival.

Now, suddenly, it appears to have again changed tack. This time opting to ally with two outfits targeting Congress’ minority vote base — Badraduddin Ajmal’s AIUDF in Assam, an outfit party stalwart and former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi had fiercely fought alongside BJP, and Abbas Siddqui-led ISF in West Bengal. These moves indicate that the Congress leadership has conceded it would rather compromise and share the minority turf than risk losing it to religion-based parties, even if it means inviting upon itself, yet again, the ‘minority appeasement’ charge.

Congress hopes its pact with ISF in West Bengal would safeguard its traditional minority base in the Malda-Mushidabad belt. While Congress along with CPM may have split Siddiqui away from Owaisi, who was also working on an alliance with ISF, many of its leaders are worried about the cleric-turned politician’s controversial statements.

As a result, Congress situation in the upcoming elections is rather ironical. CPM, which has drawn Congress into this pact with ISF in West Bengal, is attacking the Congress in Kerala — so is BJP — over its alliance with the Muslim League. Hence, many worry if the understanding in West Bengal with the CPM, which lost 20% vote share in 2019 LS polls, and the ISF will only split the minority vote to BJP’s benefit.

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