ENARADA, New Delhi
by Ajay N Jha
Congress vice- President Rahul Gandhi’s statement that “we should learn from AAP party” and his conclave and interaction with 235 Dalit intellectuals during the last three days has aroused both plaudits as well as cynicism among the congress party workers. While one set of Congress leaders see this as a desperate exercise in salvaging the sagging morale of the party workers and rapidly shrinking base of the party, others see it yet another exercise in futility because they feel that the public mood across the country is already against the Congress party and its style of functioning and any more such glam and gimmick would hardly cut ice.
A fourth term Congress MP said in a cryptic style “Shri Rahul Gandhi is our leader, a Gandhi, so he is at liberty to speak anything and get away with that. But the worry is if this is the way things are going to be with Rahul, the Nehru-Gandhi family will soon lose its aura and command that had been so consciously crafted around them for the last 65 years”.
Almost the same kind of sentiment was echoed by Senior Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi who said “Our Party vice- President should remind himself that there was something called Antony committee report on same things that he wants to learn from Kejriwal. The party had a legacy of Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad and such other tall leaders. It need not pursue learning from elsewhere.”
Yet another senior Congress functionary said, “If Rahul Gandhi thinks that outsourcing and giving important positions to paratroopers in the organisation and in the government, as also sidetrack genuine party workers who spent years serving the organisation, is revamp and restructure, how can we the lesser mortals comment on his wisdom?”.
If all this was not enough to embarrass the Congress, former union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar in an edit page article in The Indian Express headlined, “It’s good to lose”, begins by saying that as a Congressman, “I greatly welcome Sunday’s electoral reverses. I also look forward to our probably occupying the opposition benches after the mid-2014 Lok Sabha elections”.
Aiyar ends by saying “… such a purge of power brokers and the induction of a party leadership elected by the broad membership of the Congress will take time. The distraction of running a government will impede the long-term restoration of the party. A break from governance would be a welcome break that could be used to refit the party as the nation’s natural party of governance in the 21st century.”
Claiming that he had questioned the wisdom of making Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister both in 2004 and in 2009 Aiyar said that no Congress leader listened to him then. Aiyar’s argument is on different lines from those who are critical of Rahul’s thoughts and style of functioning but for the people at large the message is all the same and that is– deep disorder in Congress party.
The biggest debate within the Congress party these central at the Central hall of Parliament in between frequent adjournments is if any amount of learning would really help the Congress party as Rahul Gandhi has been saying. With hardly 145 odd days to go for the Lok Sbha elections, what would he and his party do now to turn things around and how much would they help in salvaging its already battered tattered image?
The hard truth, however is that Rahul cannot transform overnight into a charismatic leader and Manmohan Singh’s intriguing policies cannot be substituted with genuine reforms that can take care of the country’s economy as well as the welfare of its people. So, for the time being, with neither a presentable leadership nor populist goodies to attract votes, all that the Congress can do is to routinely prepare for the elections because that in itself is an uphill task.
But the biggest challenge before the party would be how to manage the numbers? That the Congress party is ruling in 11 States today, may look promising on paper but the fact remains that all these states together account for only about 180 Lok Sabha seats, of which the Congress holds less than 100. In the last elections, the Congress and its allies had indeed done well in these states and managed more than half of the seats. It is doubtful if the Congress party would reap the same kind harvest in 2014 as well.
The Congress party faces a serious trouble in Andhra Pradesh where it had won 33 out of the 42 seats last time. With its prospects plunging deep, thanks to the YSR family phenomenon and a lacklustre state leadership, the Congress now wants to split the state into Telangana and Seemandhra, with the hope that the former will offer them some relief. But now the TRS, which the Congress wanted to piggyback on, might not even touch it with a barge pole and go with the BJP. So, the Congress is a dud in the erstwhile Andhra.
In fact, the bifurcation exercise has turned out to be a big headache for the party with many of its own leaders rebelling against the leadership. Chief Minister K Kiran Kumar Reddy’s open defiance and his announcement of “defeating the Bill on the floor of the House” is something that did not happen earlier. The Congress party may get a few seats from the Telangana region as ‘a return gift’ but it is going to be decimated in Seemandhra should Kiran Kumar Reddy float his own political party and become a ‘martyr’ for the cause of united Andhra.
The next big number in the Congress-ruled states is Maharashtra where the Congress-NCP alliance won 25 out of a total of 48 (17 from Congress and eight from Sharad Pawar’s NCP). With the likes of Adarsh housing and irrigation scams, law and order failures, and no extraordinary governance to show, the Prithviraj Chavan government will certainly face the disadvantage of incumbency. Add to this, the nuisance of a wily NCP Supremo who can embarrass the Congress and walk out of the alliance at the last moment. In that case, the Congress party would not be in a position to even win 8 seats.
In Haryana, the Congress had managed a clean sweep winning 9 out of 10 seats on Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s popularity and deft management. But then, there was no Robert Vadra’s land deals or Ashok Khemka’s inside stories. Additionally, if the AAP expands contiguously to the state, the Congress’s goose will be cooked.
In Assam, the Congress party won 7 out of the total of 14 seats. Would Tarun Gogoi deliver again remains a big question? In the wake of the recent rape-outrage and charges of mis-governance, he already looks like a defeated man.
Down south, Kerala is a state that has often come to the partial rescue of the Congress when everything went against it. In 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress party won 13 and its allies 3 out of the total of 21 seats. Today, the party and the government it leads is in a complete disarray, thanks to never ending scams – including its regular share of sex scandals – and internal fights. Unless the electorate is put off by the violent and opportunistic ways of the CPM, Oomen Chandy may not be of any major help and at the moment, the Congress party could hardly win 3 to 4 seats.
In Karnataka which has 28 Parliamentary seats, the Congress tally is of 9 seats and its government is in power. But Chief Minister Sidharamaih’s image has already started taking a beating, thanks to vociferous cries by senior Congressmen about all ex – Janata Dal men getting plum posts and say in the governance. Moreover, his refusal to expand the cabinet and giving berth to people like Dr G Parameshwar, DK Shivakumar and R Roshan Baig and re-structuring 67 Boards and Corporations, seems to have once again plunged the party into factional fights.
Moreover, KJP leader BS Yeddiurappa’s likely return into the BJP is going to create more problems for the Chief Minister and the Congress party would not be in a position to retain even 9 seats. That means, the number of Congress-ruled states that the party touts is meaningless and they are unlikely to deliver even half the existing numbers. The best case scenario might be about 50 plus seats.
That means, there are at least 9 states including Madhya Pradesh(29) , Karnataka(28), Gujarat( 26), Rajasthan (25), Chhattisgarh( 11), Delhi( 7), Uttarakhand(5), Himachal Pradesh( 4), and Goa(2) where Congress party is directly pitted against the BJP wand which together account for 137 seats in which the Congress may find tough to reach 60 mark. Added to that are States like Jharkhand(14), Punjab(13), Haryana(10) and Jammu and Kashmir(6) where BJP would facing polls along with its local allies and which account for a total of 43 Lok Sabha Seats. The Congress party may find it difficult to retain even 15 seats in these States.
In Rajasthan for example, Congress had won in 20 out of the total of 25 seats last time. But then, there was a pro-Congress wave and a triumphant Ashok Ghelot, which are now history. With the Congress biting the dust in the state, all that the Congress can hope for is a handful.
On the other hand, Uttar Pradesh has the highest tally of 80 seats. Last time, the Congress had won 21, with more going to the ruling Samajvadi Party. If the multiple splits of the electorate (SP-BJP-BSP-Cong) continue, the Congress will gain nothing. If it has to make it big, it has to win big time in UP, which looks absolutely impossible. An alliance will not help much because both the SP and the BSP – if at all they choose to align with the Congress – will want to keep most of the seats to themselves. Indications are that most of the sitting Ministers from the State in the Union government are likely to lose and the Congress party may not reach even double digits.
Tamil Nadu is a hugely important state for the Congress. With DMK, it had 26 seats (DMK-18 and Congress-8) in last elections. With absolutely no anti-Jayalalithaa sentiment visible in the state now, the continuing taint of 2G and effete handling of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue will hurt the Congress-DMK combine. There is no extraordinary situation in the state that should go against Jayalalithaa who wants to win all the 39 seats.
The only other state that stands out for the time being is Bihar which has 40 constituencies where JD (U) and BJP together had won in 32. Whether the JD (U) be able to repeat the performance with Congress filling in for the BJP remains to be seen. The Congress had won only 2 seats and that tally does not seem likely to increase this time either.
So, those people expecting a second “Kamraj Plan” by Rahul Gandhi should remind themselves that even in 1967, it had not helped the Congress party much. The first casualty was Tamil Nadu State itself from where Kamraj came. The Congress party lost in 7 States then and yet it managed to win 1967 Lok Sabha Polls with a very thing margin.
The other side of the story is that whenever the Congress was in trouble, the southern states had helped. Even post-emergency, out of the 150-odd MPs the party managed, more than 110 were from the southern states and Maharashtra. Even in 1977 LS Polls, the Congress party had managed to win 154 seats as against the Janata party tally of 295 seats. These states also played a critical role in Indira Gandhi’s return in 1980.
Thanks to Ram Mandir movement and the Hindutwa wave in the early 1990s, the Congress party’s vote bank started shrinking as seen its tally of just 140 seats in 1996 and 141 seats in 1998 Lok Sabha polls respectively. It was because of the same kind of leadership vacuum during PV Narasimharao and Kitaram kesri interregnum. When Mrs Sonia Gandhi took over in 1999 as the Congress President, the Congress party’s tally came down to just 114 seats. But the Congress party did cover a lot of ground later and won 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls under her leadership.
At the moment, the party seems to have lost its connectivity and its leadership has become worrisome. With Rahul Gandhi turning out to be a perpetual non-starter, the party has nobody to turn to now. Of course, the Congress has nobody but itself to blame for attempting to run a national party with the charisma of a single family. That too, for most part of its existence. If old family-held enterprises can fail because they failed to move with the times, why can’t a family-held party?
Perhaps it was the feat of that spectacle which prompted Mani Shankar Aiyar to say that “It’s time the Congress sat on the opposition. The party has to completely change – it should get rid of people such as Manmohan Singh and the technocrat-careerists who are looking to occupy India’s policy-space, its welfare policies should be inspired by the genuine needs of people and not by political expediency, and it has to learn how to run its economy without excluding its majority. And more importantly, the churning for a new leadership – dismantling of the high-command and complete decentralisation of power within its ranks – has to begin at the earliest. “
A few political pundits following the Congress beat for years together admit that “The First Family never had much live contact with the rank and file but it always had a feel of the pulse and supporters had an unflinching faith. That has suffered a serious dent. The demoralisation in Congress ranks following a total rout in four north Indian states is slowly turning into deep disenchantment, even anger, against the person who they until recently worshipped as their unquestioned leader with a divine right to rule, a demi-God, as a saviour, as a youth icon, etc. “
In their opinion, a leader’s aura comes with his ability to foresee an emerging a situation, mould his action, gear up the organisation to meet the challenges and establish connect with the people and be the vote catcher for the party. Rahul Gandhi’s failing to make tangible delivery on those counts has diminished his authority outside of party headquarters. Given the current situation it is not going to be easy for Rahul Gandhi to do what he promised to do after the latest round of assembly polls .
Ironically, it is not just the old guard that is angry with Rahul’s unpredictable statements but even the younger leaders, sung and unsung both, are deeply critical of him, his thought process and of the mismatch between his preaching and his practice.
The BJP, on the other hand, has already started sensing the smell of victory and it going gung-ho on the piggy of Narendra Modi’s popularity. It is aiming at getting at least 140 out of the total of 180 seats as discussed above and it is also trying to get at least 65 to 70 seats out of the total of 120 seats in Bihar(40) and Uttar Pradesh(80).
Moreover, it is making an all-out effort even in areas like North –East which used to be in the Congress kitty so far. In Assam, the BJP hopes to increase its tally from 4 to 8 seats which is quite possible because of terrible infighting within the Congress party and falling popularity of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.
The BJP may, also open its account for the first time in Arunachal Pradesh because of the profile of EX-MP Kiren Rijiju and Tapir Gao. Moreover, it has been trying to woo and engage Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio to put up their Lok Sabha candidates on the BJP symbol.
In Meghalaya, former Speaker Purno A Sangma and his National People’s Party (NPP) is already a apart of NDA and it is quite likely that he would win his Tura seat in Garo Hills of Meghalaya this time around. The BJP may not get much in Mizoram but in Manipur, it is trying to reach some political understanding with local parties and make them contest on BJP symbol.
That means, the BJP is likely to get more seats which accounts for a total of 25 seats including 14 from Assam and 11 others from the NE region. Even otherwise, the trend has been that the local parties always support the government at the Centre.
Under these circumstances, the Congress leadership’s hope for a miracle may not materialise and with prices of essential commodities and diesel and LPG still increasing at regular intervals, the voter’s apathy would only go sky-rocketing.
Senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani may have sounded very curt and crude in saying that “Mrs Sonia Gandhi has the record of bringing the Congress party to 114 seats in 1999. Let us see if she breaks her own record and if her party is able to main even 70 seats in 2014 LS polls”. AS things stand today, it would not be surprising if that his prediction could turn out to be near true if not bang on target.
Clearly the task for the Congress leadership is mammoth and it would take a lot of effort and collective wisdom of its leaders to resurrect the party from the lowest ebb of popularity and credibility into a phoenix and prove its critics wrong.
(Posted on December 14, 2013 @ 4pm)
(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. His email id is Ajay N Jha <email@example.com> )
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