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As the Lok Sabha elections near, the opposition INDIA alliance has never looked more dejected and divided. Seat sharing talks between the main constituent, the Congress and almost all other allies, have failed.

Nitish Kumar and Jayant Choudhary have jumped ship to the NDA and senior Congress leaders are leaving the party one by one. The latest is former Maharastra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who quit the party this week and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Congress has never looked more weak and beleaguered. In many ways, it is much worse than the defeats of 2014 and 2019 because the party seemed to getting some of its act together last year with the crucial victory in Karnataka and Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. All the gains have dissipated as the Congress struggles not just with allies but to put its own house in order. More defections are expected soon.

It is clear that the Prime Minister’s number one target in this election campaign is the Congress. In a subtle shift, Mr. Modi has recently not targeted the INDIA alliance which he used to describe as “arrogant” and “corrupt”. Now, his focus is squarely on the weakest link in the opposition camp — the Congress and the Gandhi family in particular.

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Playing into the BJP’s hands

In his last speech to the Lok Sabha before it adjourned for the last time ahead of the elections, the Prime Minister’s attack was at times even personal as he went after Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For the BJP, projecting the Congress as the enemy and the privilege of the Gandhi family is a narrative which suits them politically. A Modi vs Rahul battle is exactly what plays into the BJP’s hands.

Regional parties have proved to be the only real challenge to the BJP at the state level. And as he attempts to win a third term in office, Mr. Modi is also going all out to woo regional forces into the NDA fold. Some would say this wooing from BJP comes in different forms including unleashing the force of agencies like the Enforcement Directorate.

There has been speculation for some time now in Maharashtra, for example, that opposition leaders have been threatened with ED/ CBI action if they don’t switch sides. No one will admit that publicly but you only have to see the criminal cases Ashok Chavan is facing to connect the dots. Maharastra is one state where the BJP, despite being in power with the Eknath Shinde Shiv Sena, appears to be on the back foot.

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Congress must grasp the reins

The recent India Today poll showed the opposition MVA in the lead for the general elections and perhaps that is why more opposition leaders will face pressure to switch sides in the coming weeks. However, it is also baffling that the Congress has not done much to try and keep senior leaders within the party fold.

Many of those who have exited the party in the last few years have complained that their requests for a meeting with the top leadership were ignored. Ashok Chavan’s case is hardly a surprise. There had been a buzz about his exit for months but little was done to reach out to him.

Many in the Congress are also privately miffed at the timing of Rahul Gandhi’s second Bharat jodo yatra, which is now being curtailed by a week or so. This was the time for Rahul Gandhi to be present in Delhi, to work out seat sharing plans, look closely at ticket distribution. He should have done this Yatra three months ago.

Instead, top leaders are busy running after him while he is on the road. Some Congress leaders say the pressure from agencies like the ED is forcing their allies to abandon seat sharing pacts. That may be partly true but several of the smaller parties have also complained that the Congress demands far more seats than it deserves in states, which is proving to be a deal breaker.

Look at UP, where the Congress won just one seat last time but has been eyeing 20 seats in a pact with the Samajwadi Party. Akhilesh Yadav’s offer of 11 seats is more than generous. The onus is on the opposition, especially the Congress, to show it hasn’t given up the fight for 2024. Because right now they look terribly adrift.