Ajay N Jha

May 16 and beyond: The future of Congress party

Enarada - GraphicsAjay N Jha

ENARADA, New Delhi 


Would the summer of 2014 would be more unbearable for the Congress party than even 1999 or say 1977? All indications point to that direction unless there is a miracle and all poll calculations go for a toss.

As things stand today, this may perhaps be one of the worst defeats of the Congress party in last 40 years if it does not cross 100 mark.  The Congress had managed 155 seats even in 1977 and its poorest tally so far has been of 114 seats in 1999 under the leadership of Siratam kesri.

It was then that, Sonia Gandhi stepped out of the cloisters of 10 Janpath to take it upon herself the daunting task of reversing the party’s fortunes which had touched a new low after the exit of PV Narasimha Rao as prime minister and Sitaram Kesri as party chief. It took her five more years to do so, but she managed to bring the party and its allies to power first in 2004 and then again in 2009.

Cut to 2014, and the Congress seems to be hurtling back to where Sonia had started, although party leaders stoutly maintain that they will cross the 114 mark. But if the results bear out the poll predictions of a debacle, the Congress is in for a long and torturous haul which may even make or break its shape and size.

Post-election, it has no option but to go for an intense, painful and agonizing soul-searching that calls for a radical reinvention and makeover of the party which has had to pay the price for 10 years of incumbency and the government’s failure to check prices, inflation, corruption and paralysis in decision making and governance, specially between 2009-14 under UPA-II.

There is little doubt that the rituals that accompany electoral defeats will follow although part of the blame for the party’s current woes also lie with Sonia who dispensed with Congress Working Committee meetings, used platforms like the Jaipur chintan shivir to anoint Rahul rather than brainstorm on issues and failed to revive the party in key states despite 10 years of power at the Centre. If it fares poorly in the elections, there is every chance that a committee will be set up to go into the reasons for the defeat.

One of the major problems plaguing the Congress party think-tank is its refusal to adopt new techniques, new methods and even new technical tools to tackle the present set of problems. The BJP, on the contrary, has been using all other means of mass communication and media management. But the Congress party leaders have not yet been able to think out of the block and implement them.

So, the biggest possibility that one could see it happening after May 16th would either be a review meeting or a chintan shivir (brainstorming session) . Or, the practice of holding chief minister’s conclave — largely abandoned after it came to power at the Centre — would be revived, though in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, Rahul had presided over a conference of chief ministers.

The big question is what and how would they navigate? The same veterans like AK Antony, Chidambaram, kapil Sibal, Janardan Dwivedi, Ahmed patel, Digvijay Singh and Moti lal Vora would take moral responsibility, pass some vague kind of resolutions and tie them around the neck of Rahul Gandhi as sacrificial lamb??

The next logical follow up would be a reshuffle at the All India Congress Committee and new office-bearers appointed. Similar changes will take place in the state units. Adjustments will be made to ensure that the new teams bear the imprint of changing India and a young India. And calls will be made to tone up the organization in the growing number of states where the party has become a marginal and fringe player.

But all these steps will be cosmetic because the malaise gripping the organization runs deeper. The party will need all its energy, determination and nerve to address the basic problem — the crisis in the charisma, credibility, confidence and competence of the top leadership, the fading shine of the Gandhi brand that is now represented essentially by Rahul Gandhi, the shrinking geographic and social space of the party and the declining value of the 129 year old organization that has been overtaken by regional forces, including by newbie Aam Aadmi Party in its bastion in Delhi.

For Congress workers who have lived and fattened on the Nehru-Gandhi name, it will be a bitter truth to swallow that their future cannot be tied to vice president Rahul Gandhi whose rise in the party has been directly proportional to the decline in its fortunes under his leadership.

Over the last one year in particular, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her “putra moh” had tried to make the Congress synonymous with Rahul who was anointed vice president at a stage-managed session at Jaipur in January 2013 despite his inability to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat where the Congress was crushed in the assembly polls or for that matter in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or Bihar where it has all but withered away. He failed to deliver again in the 2013 year-end assembly polls in which it was virtually decimated in Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, crushed by the ruling BJP in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and booted out in Rajasthan.

Despite Rahul’s failure to inspire workers or voters, Sonia entrusted the 2014 campaign to him.   With his failure at the Lok Sabha test too, the impression would intensify that Rahul is no vote catcher specially when juxtaposed with Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee who has pitched himself as a strong, dynamic and decisive alternative capable of filling the leadership vacuum created at the national level with the collapse of the trimurti represented by Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The three Congress leaders had between them attracted the support of the middle classes, the poor and the youth to win the 2009 general elections. The middle classes and the youths have since then abandoned the Congress for Modi.

With Sonia determined to hand over her mantle to him, a rebellion against Rahul is unlikely even though there are murmurs whether he has it in him to pull the party out of the crisis it faces. Some of its leaders may migrate for greener pastures but Congress workers are also aware that the Gandhi name—no matter who it is—cements and holds the party together even at the worst of times.

With Sonia stepping back because of her undisclosed illness and advancing years, she is likely to play mentor and referee to the simmering battle between the old guard and the new who Rahul has been promoting often at the expense of the tried and tested hands who had rallied behind Sonia since she joined active politics. Indeed, one of the factors for the party’s sorry state of affairs has been the imposition of youngsters as state unit chiefs just ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha polls without giving enough time either to them to settle into their new jobs or to allow the veterans to get used to the new change.

There have been reports of poor coordination in states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh where youngsters like Sachin Pilot, Ashok Tanwar and Arun Yadav were appointed state unit chiefs. But with the Gandhi brand itself under strain, voices within the party would rise for an expanded and meaningful role for Priyanka who has so far confined herself only to handling Rae Bareli and Amethi.

Her performance so far in these two seats has been mixed. She ensured huge margins of victory for her mother and brother in their seats but could deliver only two of the 10 assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi during the 2012 assembly elections. Though Priyanka is yet to prove herself on the larger canvas, her easy style and ability to connect with people provides a glimmer of hope to a despondent party and despairing workers who see in her traces of Indira Gandhi especially in the manner in which she took Modi head-on in the recent election campaign.

But on the both occasions, it was she who lost the sheen and her “Neechi Raajniti’ barb against .odi would have done more damage to her own persona than otherwise.

In the event, the two interlinked challenges before the party are to bring a new shine to the Gandhi brand and re-energise the Congress which does not have any big state to its name other than Maharashtra where it is in alliance with the NCP. The stakes are too high for the party not to address to these dual tasks. Time for a third Congress avatar. It has to make the necessary internal adjustments, refurbish its image or go for another reinvention—the third since Sonia stepped into the frame in 1998-99.

The first reinvention saw her giving a pro-poor tilt to the party (represented in the slogan of Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath), jettisoning its go-it-alone policy, forging alliances (including with the NCP which had split on the issue of her foreign origin), setting up the Congress’s first coalition at the Centre and renouncing the prime minister’s post.

The second reinvention established a formidable trimurti of Sonia, Singh and Rahul who between them leapfrogged the caste divide promoted by regional and sectarian parties to win the support of the poor, the middle class and the youth.

A third reinvention has been due for some time now as it battles the crisis of identity, credibility and perception on almost all fronts. Indeed, after the 2013 assembly polls, many senior leaders has urged upon Congress leadership to  tap the energy of the vast reservoir of Congress supporters elected to various panchayats and to implement the reports of the Uma Shankar Dikshit and the AK Antony committees that went into the factors responsible for the party’s defeat in 1989 and 1999 and recommended, among other things, vetting memberships, holding free and fair internal elections and announcing Lok Sabha and assembly candidates six months and three months respectively in advance. But nothing happened.

The Congress party needs those reforms and re-dressed more than ever now as newer forces and challenges have surfaced. But if such a revamp has to be conducted, the Congress will have to show nerve and not succumb to the temptation of forming a UPA-3 to keep the BJP-NDA out of power and use the time it now has to rebuild the organization, especially in UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which account for 201 of the 543 elective seats in the Lok Sabha. Even in Andhra Pradesh, which boosted the party’s tally in 2004 and 2009, the party is in a tailspin having miscalculated the political and electoral benefits of bifurcating the state.

The public mood across the country is in favour of Modi who is from the RSS laboratory and  is not a big admirer of “ political niceties”. The Congress party would also have to reflect upon the fear of the unknown—unlike a BJP spearheaded by Atal Bihari Vajpayee or L K Advani who have had long innings in national politics, the saffron camp’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi is an unknown entity. But if the party has to get out of the dark tunnel it is in, it has no option but to bite the bullet.

The biggest question that the Congress leadership would have to address itself is whether it would be in a position to keep the party folks together. What if a few Congress leaders walk away? What if a few Congress Chief Ministers openly defy the Congress High command as former Andhra CM K Kiran Kumar Reddy did?

The Younger Gandhis would have to really slog themselves out to stay their party put in the race as an effective opposition party against the Modi machine which would leave nothing to chance to decimate the 127 year old party into smithereens.

(Posted on May 11, 2014 @ 10:30 pm)

(Ajay N Jha is a veteran journalist from both Print and Electronic media.  He is Advisor to Prasar Bharti. The views expressed are his personal. He can be reached at  ajayjha30@gmail.com )

The views expressed on the website are those of the Columnists/ Authors/Journalists / Correspondents and do not necessarily reflect the views of ENARADA.

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