How seat sharing is proving to INDIA bloc's first big test

Congress understands the discussions need to be held on a state-wide basis

24-Mamata-Banerjee-Rahul-Gandhi-Sitaram-Yechury-and-Arvind-Kejriwal Talking turf: (From left) Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury and Arvind Kejriwal | Rahul R Pattom

At noon on January 8, when a team of senior Congress leaders met AAP representatives in Delhi, it was in for a surprise. The Congress negotiators―whom party president Mallikarjun Kharge had deputed to discuss seat-sharing with INDIA members―were there to talk about seats in Delhi. The AAP, however, wanted to expand the discussion to other states, even those where the Congress has traditionally been in a direct contest with the BJP.

The Congress is learnt to have decided to negotiate for around 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 10 in Bihar, nine in Jharkhand, six in West Bengal, around 20 in Maharashtra and four in Delhi. In Punjab, the Congress would not give up any of the eight seats it had won in 2019.

This included Punjab, where the AAP is in power, and also Gujarat, Haryana and Goa, where the AAP claims it has worked hard to build an organisation and has also fought elections. It is learnt to have told the Congress team that it would want to contest four of the seven seats in Delhi, seven in Punjab, three in Haryana and one each in Gujarat and Goa.

The tussle with the AAP was not the only one. There has been no formal discussion between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress for seat sharing in West Bengal. Instead, there have been heated exchanges between the two parties, which are bitter rivals in state politics. Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has rejected the Trinamool’s initial offer of two seats to the Congress, and has criticised the Mamata Banerjee government over the recent attacks on Enforcement Directorate officials. He even suggested that the state be put under president’s rule. The Trinamool, in turn, called Chowdhury a BJP agent and said it could defeat the BJP on its own in Bengal.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party is learnt to have indicated to its INDIA alliance partners, the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, that it wants to contest 65 of the 80 seats in the state. The Congress has held a preliminary meeting with the Samajwadi Party; a formal meeting of the Uttar Pradesh allies will be held later. Sources said the Samajwadi Party has conveyed its openness to discussing the Congress’s expectations in the state, while also indicating that around ten seats should be a reasonable number.

“We had a meeting that was cordial and the sentiment was of collaboration and cooperation,” said senior Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav. “We will carry forward our discussions very soon with the same sentiment.”

Congress leaders from the state have apparently conveyed to the party leadership that it can bargain for around 20 seats as the Samajwadi Party needs the Congress’s support to ensure the Muslim vote stays with it. They have pointed out to the central leaders that the Yadav vote bank is not watertight and had supported the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. A sizeable section of state Congress leaders is also of the view that efforts should be made to bring the Bahujan Samaj Party on board, as that would bring in dalit votes to the INDIA alliance even beyond the state. However, the Samajwadi Party wants no association with the BSP. All this makes for difficult discussions among the opposition parties in what is politically the most crucial state.

For the INDIA bloc, these were always seen as the more difficult states in terms of reaching a consensus. However, even in states where there are alliances already in place, splitting the seats is proving to be a tricky exercise.

A day before the meeting on Delhi, the Congress negotiators―including veteran leaders Mukul Wasnik, Salman Khurshid and former chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel―had held discussions with the Bihar allies. The talks, though, were foregrounded by a terse message from the Janata Dal (United) about contesting all 16 seats it had won in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This would leave the rest of the allies, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, with 24. The Bihar allies have offered the Congress four or five seats, with two to three being kept aside for the left parties.

PTI05_11_2023_000110B Seating trouble: (From left) Tejashwi Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Uddhav Thackeray | PTI

Talks with the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi partners have also not been without hurdles. The Congress wants more seats because it considers itself the largest constituent after the splits in the Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), however, has said that it has always fought on 20 or more seats, and pointed out that the Congress had won only one seat in the previous Lok Sabha elections. Initial discussions are learnt to have zeroed in on around 18 to 20 seats each for the Congress and the Shiv Sena (UBT), around eight for the NCP and one or two seats
for Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi.

Not only has the beginning of seat-sharing talks been marred by acrimony, it has also pointed to the inherent difficulty in bringing together close to 30 parties on a shared stage. More importantly, the partners have been critical of the Congress for taking too long to get the discussions going. In the December 19 meeting, some parties had said that they wanted the seat adjustments to be finalised by the end of the year. Congress leaders, however, said that the effort would be to finalise the arrangement by the end of January. They added that the party will hold discussions on a state-wise basis with a focus on winnability and not the number of seats. The party, following its national alliance committee’s meetings with the state units, has reached the conclusion that it can work on alliances in nine states. In the remaining states, it would be either a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP or there will be a regional party that is not a part of the INDIA bloc, such as in Odisha or Andhra Pradesh. The Congress estimates that it will contest 250-plus seats, a substantial fall from the 421 seats it had contested in 2019.

“We are cognisant of the need to accomplish the task of seat sharing speedily and we are giving it topmost priority,” said Wasnik, the convener of the Congress’ national alliance committee. “Depending on the availability of other parties, we will hold discussions. The discussions need to be held on a state-wise basis because every state has its own unique circumstances and a different set of political parties.”

The Congress is learnt to have decided to negotiate for around 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 10 in Bihar, nine in Jharkhand, six in West Bengal, around 20 in Maharashtra and four in Delhi. In Punjab, the Congress would not give up any of the eight seats it had won in 2019.

“The seat-sharing discussions between the AAP and the Congress have begun,” said Gopal Rai, AAP’s Delhi convener. “We have maintained the alliance should be in Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Goa and Gujarat. The discussion has been positive.”

In West Bengal, too, leaders in both parties insist a tie-up is on the cards despite the war of words, and some give and take is expected to happen. “We are in touch with the Trinamool,” said a senior Congress leader involved in the discussions. “We are hopeful of working out an arrangement with them. Of course, we cannot be given only two seats in the state. We are hopeful that our share will go up to five or six seats.”

For now, it seems all the members of the INDIA bloc have reached the table, but are undecided on where to sit.