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Now or never for Congress | India Today magazine cover story – Cover Story News

The obituary has been long in the writing, dusted off every time the Congress loses another election. Now, however, the possibility of the grand old party disappearing into oblivion has become very real. Impervious to that idea so far, the realisation is finally dawning on the Congress—that it may be on the cusp of extinction if it does not take immediate steps to avert its demise. Hence a ‘Nava Sankalpa Shivir’, a three-day brainstorming session in Rajasthan’s Udaipur from May 13 to 15. It’s the fourth such conclave since 1998, but the last one was held way back in 2013, a year before the party delivered its worst Lok Sabha performance. More than 400 Congress delegates will gather here to urgently debate strategies to combat the immediate challenges—assembly elections in 10 states in the next two years—before gearing up for the 2024 general election. These states account for 144 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats, of which the Congress currently has just nine. Even though it won assembly elections in three of these states the last time, it lost the government in one—Madhya Pradesh—to internal feuds, a challenge that has reared its head in two other states—Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—as well.

Illustration by Nilanjan Das

The Congress now finds itself in the deepest electoral abyss it has ever faced. Its Lok Sabha tally is at a historic low—44 in 2014 and 52 in 2019. Its national vote share has plummeted to 19 per cent from its 50-year peak of 49.1 per cent in the 1984 general election. Of the 30 states (including Delhi and Puducherry) in the country, it is in power only in two—Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—and is a minor coalition partner in two others: Maharashtra and Jharkhand. The party has lost 37 of the 50 assembly elections in the past eight years. But its problems today are not just electoral. As senior leader Manish Tewari tells india today, “Every political party requires five fundamentals that are moving parts but have to work in cohesion to ensure electoral and national relevance—ideology, narrative, organisation, access to resources and leadership. All these variables need to come together for the net power of that organisation to demonstrate electoral efficacy. All five today are a challenge in the case of the Congress.”

Their decisions may be collective, but the three Gandhis have a mind and functioning style of their own, sending mixed signals within the party

It is these five key areas that the Congress must fix at its Udaipur conclave. But no one knows better than Tewari that it is an exercise in futility. He was part of the so-called G-23 or group of 23 veteran Congress leaders who dared to challenge the game of musical chairs being played by the three Gandhis—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka—over the party leadership in August 2020. They had demanded that the party appoint “accountable and available” leaders who could reinvigorate the organisation. But being past masters in delaying, diluting and destroying any opposition within, the Congress high command (read the Gandhis) won over most of the dissidents by giving them positions in major advisory committees. They even agreed to hold elections to the post of party president within a year, but then postponed the exercise to September 2022, citing Covid and assembly elections. The party seems inured to the enormous electoral setbacks, refusing to bring about radical change even while being aware that each election lost is one more nail in its coffin. Even poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who made an impassioned presentation to the top Congress leadership recently, decided against joining the party partly because it was reluctant to revamp its working style.

The known knowns

Much of the Congress party’s ills are ‘known knowns’. For instance, when one points out how Kishor in his presentation said that in the 2019 general election, the Congress fielded candidates who had lost twice consecutively in 170 Lok Sabha constituencies, veteran Congress leader and former Union home and finance minister P. Chidambaram said, “I’m sure this data is available somewhere in some files in some cupboard in the Congress party. Had we put together that data and analysed it, we would not have fielded those 170 candidates.”

Likewise, Kishor’s suggestion that the Congress fix the “coalition conundrum” and strategically align with other parties, playing second fiddle in regions where another non-BJP party was strong, is something the Congress could have implemented in West Bengal in the 2021 assembly poll. A survey by its own data analytics department indicated that the party should have formed a pre-poll alliance with the ruling TMC. Yet, the Congress did not go down that route. The party squandered its opportunities in Uttarakhand and Goa too, where the anti-incumbency against the BJP governments ran high.

Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty

But none of it seems to be one lesson too many for the Congress. If party insiders, including Gandhi family loyalists, are to be believed, the party is yet to stir into action in states scheduled to go to polls this year and the next. In Gujarat, for instance, where the election is due later this year, its top leader Hardik Patel has openly expressed resentment against the party and there has been no decision on inducting Naresh Patel, an influential leader of the Patidar community that holds sway in 48 of the state’s 182 assembly seats even as other parties are wooing him.

Most Congress leaders say the party’s inertia comes from its culture of consensus building

The party’s inability or unwillingness to take fast and timely decisions has been one of its major failings. Several Congress leaders believe the party won three elections in 2018 and put up a strong fight in Gujarat in 2017 because it took faster decisi­ons. All of them, regardless of age and allegiance, agree that the party’s inertia in dec­ision-making is rooted in its culture of consensus-building, which has reached another level under the Gandhi trio. Not taking a decision is often a strategy adopted to avoid confrontation and maintain the status quo. Thus, elections in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are scheduled for next year, yet no visible effort has been made to stop the feud over the chief ministerial chair from spilling out in public. There is no clarity on state leadership in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, two states headed for polls later this year.

Who will be the leader?

The party’s real problem is that the three Gandhis continue to exert a collective and individual hold over the party. Rahul may have relinquished the post of party president, owning responsibility for the crushing Lok Sabha defeat in 2019, and mother Sonia taken over as ‘interim’ president, but his consent is still sought in party decisions. Priyanka often acts as consensus-builder between mother and son, but every so often, she acts on her own preferences, as in the Navjot Sidhu case in July 2021 or in engaging with Kishor recently.

Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty

The trio may take decisions collectively, but each has a mind and functioning style of their own, sending mixed signals within the party. Sonia dep­ends on the counsel of senior leaders, and acutely feels the absence of Ahmed Patel, her gatekeeper and sounding board till his death in 2020. His absence has left a huge communication gap has opened up between the Family and party.

Rahul has a more expansive and anonymous feedback mechanism. He regularly receives information from grassroots workers, mid-level leaders and even outsiders. He may reach out to P. Chidambaram on an economic issue or follow the brief of a journalist on the India-China border conflict. Such feedback, though useful, has little political or electoral calculation built into it.

Priyanka is a more instinctive politician who makes a public display of riding pillion on a scooter in Uttar Pradesh or hugging a tea estate worker in Assam. She has no permanent fav­ouri­tes and subscribes to the horses for courses formula. She now aspires to play the same role for Rahul that Patel did for Sonia. It was she who convinced Sonia and Rahul to make Udai Bhan, a loyalist of former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the state Congress president even though the decision went against Rahul’s favourite Randeep Singh Surjewala.

Their continuing hold on the party but without any clearly-defined role has given rise to different sets of loyalists for the three Gandhis, causing further division and bickering within the party. Resolving the leadership, therefore, has to be the party’s first priority, urge professional advisors within and outside the party, including Kishor, if it is to end the inertia and confusion.

With organisational elections under way, there is strong hope that the party will get a new president in September. Sonia is reluctant due to her health issues. Rahul has expressed no desire so far to be a presidential candidate. He doesn’t want Priyanka to contest either, and she is unlikely to go against his wish. Some insiders predict two scenarios—the Family will field a loyalist or the G23 may put up someone of their choice. Congress Leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury says the party is not wedded to the idea of only a Gandhi leading the party. “If any capable leader is available who can revive the Congress, the entire party will offer full cooperation. After all, in the past also, leaders like Narasimha Rao have helmed the party,” he says.

Where’s the party?

Its poor organisational structure is emerging as the biggest weakness of the Congress, something Chidambaram attests to when he says the party is good at governance when it is in power, but functions poorly when in Opposition. As he puts it, “When we run the government, we fail to run the party. Most senior leaders are inducted into the government and not spared for party work. When Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were prime ministers, we neglected the party organisation. Because the party machinery and work had been neglected, when we are in the Opposition, the party organisation has not picked up the responsibilities or carried the message and the narrative of the party.”

On paper, all its committees are in place. What’s lacking is a system of accountability

And elections, as the BJP and now other regional parties too have successfully demonstrated, are won at the very micro unit—the polling booth. Organisational elections in the Congress have been under way since April 15, right from the booth level. The same exercise had been carried out in 2018 too, as mandated every three years. On paper, such committees—at the booth, block, district and state level—have come into existence.

The problem is that there is no regular system of tracking performance or accountability of the leaders heading the respective organisational structures. The Congress president appoints an AICC (All-India Congress Committee) in-charge in every state. They, in turn, are tasked with monitoring the performance of the state unit, report to the president and take corrective measures whenever needed. The in-charges are expected to spend most of their time in the states they are handling. The reality is anything but. The BJP, on the other hand, operates like a corporate entity, demanding accountability from its party leaders and removing them if they are found wanting.

The Congress is also talking of generational change in leadership. Fifty per cent of the delegates at its Chintan Shivir will be leaders under the age of 50. Chidambaram believes all posts at the block, district and state level must also be manned by people under 50. Manickam Tagore, a Lok Sabha member from Tamil Nadu and in-charge of Telangana, says the decision-making process in the party should involve those whose future is at stake and not those who are past their prime. This was top of the list in Kishor’s prescription too—all leaders above the age of 70 step aside.

What’s the message?

It’s not just a dearth of next-gen leaders but also the absence of a cohesive counter-narrative against the BJP and other regional parties that has contributed to the party’s electoral distress. The BJP has nearly perfected its discourse around the politics of Hindutva, muscular nationalism and the labharthis (beneficiaries). The Congress response has been ad hoc and reactive at best. It first batted for soft Hindutva, what with Rahul declaring himself a janeudhari Shiv bhakt and engaged in a spot of temple-hopping. When that failed to cut any ice, as it was bound to, the Congress changed tack saying it was for Hinduism and not Hindutva, a binary largely lost on the electorate.

Nor has the Congress been able to build any convincing economic narrative. The much-touted Nyay or Nyuntam Aay Yojana, a minimum income guarantee scheme, hardly got any traction in 2019. Inflation and unemployment have been credible issues, but they have not yet succeeded in denting the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We had been protesting in front of the Raj Bhavan in Jharkhand against the price rise,” says Avinash Pandey, member of the Congress Working Committee and the Jharkhand in-charge. “Though people are suffering because of inflation, people around the protest site looked at us in a way that made us feel like fools wasting time on random issues. Hijab, halal and loudspeakers seem more important issues.”

The Congress used to draw its strength from a rainbow vote bank of multiple castes and communities such as Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. Since the 1990s or the post-Mandal era, it has gradually been ceding its support base to caste- and state-based regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party in UP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the TMC in Bengal, and to Muslim parties such the AIMIM and AIUDF. Post 2014, the BJP has usurped the Dalit and OBC votes. In 2019, the saffron party netted 41 per cent of the Dalit and 51 per cent of the OBC vote while the Congress got 28 and 18 per cent, respectively, according to the india today-My Axis survey. Several surveys have shown how the Congress’s share of the Muslim vote dwindled from more than 40 per cent before 2014 to around 30 per cent in 2019.

The Congress is aware that it desperately needs a message to counter the politics of polarisation. Six high-powered subject committees have been formed to deliberate on the economy, politics, farmers’ issues, social justice, organisation and youth. Most leaders talk about propagating the founding principles of the Congress—social justice and inclusion, celebrating diversity and secularism. But they are still groping in the dark to articulate it in an electorally effective language. CWC member and general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan Ajay Maken is hopeful that the Congress will be able to lure the young, aspiring voter with the “exemplary governance” records of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

What about having a mascot like the BJP has in Narendra Modi to deliver the message? Rahul, clearly, has failed to be one. Three-time Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, however, believes this may indirectly benefit Congress in the long run. “I see the BJP projecting a one-man show, the PM as the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent strongman, versus the Opposition offering a team of experienced, capable and far more broadly representative leaders to serve the people. The one-man style has not served the country very well, as the nation’s economic indicators confirm. A more broad-based alternative could do much better,” he says.

Needed, a few good allies

The Congress leaders may like to believe that Rahul remains the prime challenger to Modi, but other Opposition leaders such as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao are challenging that certainty. All of them have directly or indirectly displayed their national ambitions and taken pot shots at the Congress leadership, particularly Rahul.

Nor does the Congress seem to be paying much heed to Kishor’s formula for revival—that the Congress focus on the nearly 200 (out of 543) seats where it is in direct contest with the BJP and play second fiddle in states where a non-BJP party may be stronger as in West Bengal or in Telangana. This could help consolidate the non-BJP votes and eventually enable the Opposition parties to trounce the saffron challenge. It’s something even a Trinamool Congress leader advocates, though as a word of caution. “Please focus on winning in states where you are alone against the BJP. Leave the states where regional parties are strong. You will still have more seats than any regional party. If this principle is adhered to, there will be no need for any grand alliance of Opposition parties to beat the BJP.”

Regional leaders blame congress for arrogance; it dismisses their ‘exaggerated ambition’

But the opposite seems to be happening. The Congress fought against the Samajwadi Party and the TMC in UP and West Bengal, respectively, this year. In Goa, it had to jostle with the TMC and the Aam Aadmi Party to occupy the anti-BJP space. In Telangana, the Congress will challenge the KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi. While regional parties blame the Congress’s arrogance for preventing the formation of any alliance, the party, in turn, dismisses them as representing the “exaggerated ambitions” of regional leaders.

It is this very arrogance that the Congress will have to shed if it wants to survive. It also has to get realistic and get its house in order without wasting even a moment. It has to find the right message, the right messenger to deliver it and mobilise an army of foot-soldiers that can act as force multipliers. For the grand old party, it is truly now or never.

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