As Sonia, PM take back seat and a wary Congress eyes its future Rahul Dons Combat Gear
Congress vice-president and recently anointed campaign chief of the party, Rahul Gandhi donned the combat gear at the AICC session on January 17, ready to take the 2014 Lok Sabha battle into the enemy camp—whether it be of the BJP and its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi or Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party, the political flavour of the season. But the main problem is that he has to do it with a dispirited force.
The magnitude of the party’s defeat in the recent Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in which Rahul was the star campaigner had sapped the party of its energy, robbed the workers of their fighting spirit and left the Congress virtually rudderless with Manmohan Singh given the grace to rule himself out as Prime Minister after the elections and Congress president Sonia Gandhi stepping back because of her age and health to hand over most responsibilities to Rahul.
The morale of the workers was low even before the outcome of the Assembly polls were announced last December. And this had to do with the heavily growing burden of 10 years of incumbency, the government’s inability to rein in inflation or food prices and the severe damage done to it by a swirl of controversies, including that of corruption in high places, with the coal scam even reaching the Prime Minister’s doorstep. Other acts of omission and commission of the government also took a toll of the party’s image and appeal.
So, when the AICC meet was called, it was expected that the interaction would help the party gear up for the crucial April-May elections and the delegates would return to their states with new vigour and a number of talking points to take head-on the challenge posed by a determined BJP and a vigourous Aam Aadmi Party whose stupendous victory in the Delhi Assembly polls not only washed away the Congress but also dented the BJP’s chances. The single most important signal that emerged from the meeting was however of a combative and aggressive Rahul, who like Sonia and Singh, sought to boost the sagging morale of the Congress workers with a sharp and no-holds-barred attack on the BJP and its ‘divisive’ and ‘communal’ ideology and contrast it with the Congress’ ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ vision for the country. To those trying to finish the Congress, he warned that they would be finished themselves as the Congress ethos, thoughts and views were anchored in India’s 3000 years of history.
Elections are lost and won not by josh (energy and enthusiasm) shown by their leader alone though In the case of Rahul this bold aggressive avatar came not from his own performance but out of the necessity of the situation, raising questions whether it will survive the election and define his latter-day persona. Elections are won and lost by the energy shown by the ground-level worker, who has to take the party’s campaign, achievements and programmes to the people, mobilise support and shepherd voters to the polling booths.
Congress workers, who wanted a declaration of Rahul as PM candidate during the conclave, returned a disappointed lot, with the party having decided earlier at the Congress Working Committee meet to entrust the party’s campaign to him, thereby opening the party to the charge that it had refrained from naming him PM candidate to avoid a direct comparison with Modi, who was being projected as a strong, decisive and dynamic leader and that the Amethi MP was once again shirking responsibility of leading from the front.
“People want to know who they are voting for….They want to put a face to their vote,’’ said a leader. However, unlike other parties, where the leadership question can be an issue, the Congress has always revolved around a Nehru-Gandhi name. “There is no dispute about who is our choice for PM even if the person is not named,’’ said a Congressman.
On the face of it, the Congress has given the argument that naming a PM candidate goes against the grain of parliamentary democracy in which the elected MPs choose their leader. But there are also apprehensions that projecting Rahul as PM when the mood seems to be against the party would make him take the blame for the ills of the UPA government—whether it be price rise or corruption.
Indeed, with less than three months left for the Lok Sabha polls, the effort is on to project Rahul as a fighter against price rise and corruption. Soon after the Assembly election results came out, the Amethi MP stepped out to appeal to parties to pass the Lokpal bill. At the AICC session, he urged the Prime Minister to remove the cap of nine gas cylinders and raise it to 12. He promised 15 seats to candidates selected by grassroots and local leaderships and wanted half the Congress chief ministers to be women. Earlier, he directed Congress chief ministers to ensure that food prices are lowered.
But at the end of the day, party workers were uncertain on their ability to fight the general elections notwithstanding Rahul’s aggression on the BJP and the Prime Minister’s aggregates on the development in various sectors. But what was lacking was that elusive appeal or attraction that could help the party win back voters. ”Akraman aur aankre the lekin akarshan nahi,’’ said one such dejected worker. Indeed the party seemed to be staring at a crisis.
Crisis of charisma, credibility and confidence
Rahul zindabad may have been the slogan of the day for workers, who have long looked on a Gandhi—no matter which one—to help them ride to victory or tide them over rough times.
But the biggest crisis—and the question uppermost in the minds of the Congress supporters—would be whether the charisma of the Gandhi name and brand, which had taken the party through several challenges, has lost its sheen now, with the party losing all five Assembly seats in Sonia’s Rae Bareli parliamentary constituency and three out of five in Rahul’s Amethi despite Priyanka Vadra’s intense campaigning in 2012. Until 2009, the party had everything going for it. It had a formidable trimurti in Sonia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul, who together cut through the barriers of caste and ideological divides to become the icons of the poor, the middle class and the youths of the country.
But Singh’s sheen wore off and the middle class moved away from the party. Neither visible nor available, Rahul could not hold on to the support of youngsters, who poured out on the streets to back the Anna Hazare’s anti-graft agitation and to protest against the gangrape of a young paramedic in Delhi. That left only Sonia and her campaign to get a fair deal for the poor and the disadvantaged sections of the population. But with Sonia also stepping back in favour of Rahul, the big question became whether the Gandhi name can deliver if it came to Rahul.
Not surprisingly, after the Assembly election debacle, the Congress is pulling out all stops to save the party. And the single biggest move in this regard has been to bring Priyanka Vadra into the scene. She will not only manage her mother’s and brother’s parliamentary constituencies Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively but also has taken on a much more expanded role by looking after their countrywide tour programmes and campaigns—a role that would involve holding discussions with local and regional leaders, taking a feedback from them. Besides this, she is also emerging as a key strategist for the party’s electioneering.
In short, the trimurti of Sonia, Singh and Rahul is now being replaced by the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka trimurti as the party strives to rebuild the confidence of its workers and reignite its credibility among the people which has been deeply compromised by the failures of UPA-2.
Five Mantras for Survival of Indian National Congress
The biggest question mark on Indian political scene is—can the Congress survive as most of the surveys and pundits have written it off in next election? Congress would not have come to this pass if it had cared for independent advice and faced the truth instead of living in fool’s paradise created by its sycophant leaders. Largely I consider the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is responsible for Congress living in schizophrenia, when the patient loses sense of reality. There was no compulsion on him to get into ditch of vicious corruption and defend the criminals. Biggest example is the ordinance on protecting criminals. Twice it was considered and approved by the cabinet under his stewardship and his conscience did not wake him up. It was for Rahul Gandhi to shake him and he merely pocketed humiliation. What were his compulsions are not known. Strangely no one in leadership raised voice against this earlier and no one uttered a whimper even later after Rahul’s debunking the move. Congress has been the victim of this yesmanship and now the survival kit starts from here.
First, the Congress should demolish the culture of arrogance and sycophancy. It should create a climate of debate and dissent. The open climate should generate ideas and the derogatory speech of its spokespersons should be replaced by polite and logic-based reactions. Austerity should be brought back from Gandhian days with some changes and all legislatures and ministers should donate 50 per cent of their salary to the party. Second most important change needed is ‘zero tolerance to corruption’. Anna has stirred a revolution quietly that has washed away public acceptance of political corruption. AAP has given the political jolt. It may be difficult but it is the only way to function in future in India to banish corruption. Unfortunately, still in cases of corruption, it is dragging its feet that will further cause damage to it. Its Chief Ministers and leaders, although deeply involved and charged with corruption, are still claiming High Command’s indulgence. Rahul should be unsparing to all such cases.
Thirdly, the party should scale down its unproductive high welfare policy as not only schemes such as MGNREGA and food security have high leakages but also the resultant benefit and satisfaction of people is poor. I recently visited China and studied their poverty and prices in villages and cities. They are following very simple system: There is no subsidy and all prices are determined by market. We found the same in villages and cities. But those who in their assessment are below poverty line are directly getting cash transfer and no concession thereafter. We have made our system so complex and muddy that at each level subsidy and grant are sources of corruption and it is well known as Rajiv Gandhi poignantly described each rupee of subsidy finally reaches as 13 naya paisa in delivery. Fourthly economic policy of the party should be clearly defined. In past five years while the BJP states have done well in agriculture, power and manufacturing on the whole in these areas, Congress has gone down. In factory output, Gujarat has doubled the growth compared to Maharashtra in last five years. It requires serious consideration to bring effective manufacturing reforms and it also proves that the good governance is be-all and end-all of entire gamut of development.
Fifth major strategy for the Congress is to introduce inner party democracy at all level. Rahul Gandhi started with Youth Congress and it was good beginning but it also fell victim to many manipulations and its objectives are lost. Rahul’s mission is worth following fully to ensure that at all levels there is democracy that is genuine. I am not sure but I hope that party will bring these changes. Winning or losing election is not be-all and end-all as party has first to win the hearts of people and rest follows.
By NK Singh
Sonia also to be blamed
It is not as if Sonia cannot be faulted for the state the party finds itself in today though on balance her achievements may be more than her failures. But during the 10 years that the Congress-led UPA has been in power at the Centre, she failed to use the opportunity to focus on and strengthen the organisation in states where it has been in a limbo for decades, including Uttar Pradesh (notwithstanding the flash in the pan victory of 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2009), Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which have 201 parliamentary seats between them or in Gujarat where the party has not been able to provide any contest to the BJP’s Narendra Modi who is now the saffron outfit’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014. There are now fears that the three-time victories of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh could turn even these states into a politically barren land for the Congress much like UP, Bihar or Gujarat. Part of Sonia’s failure to tone up the party in these areas is linked perhaps to her move to give space to her son who entered active politics at the same time as the Congress’ victory in 2004 by making him general secretary in charge of frontal organisations, projecting him as a star campaigner, anointing him as vice president in January 2013 and then as the main strategist and chief campaigner for 2014. Indeed, Rahul also called and presided over a meeting of Congress chief ministers recently and after the January 17 AICC session also met delegates in batches as part of the preparation for the national polls.
There has almost been no discussion on key issues agitating the party. Congress Working Committee is no longer a forum for such debates. And when called to deliberate on issues like price rise or corruption, little headway has been made. The promise of holding regular chief ministers’ conclaves has been shelved. The general secretaries report, which used to be the hallmark of any AICC session has been dispensed with. And if the one day AICC meet of January 17 is any indication, even the practice of having separate foreign policy, political and economic resolutions has been replaced by having one omnibus resolution—which the party claims has been done because of lack of time to debate three separate resolutions but seems to have happened more because the party has little to talk about or showcase.
There was no bridgehead between the party, the government, the allies and the people in UPA-2, with Congress workers complaining that while they worked to get their MPs and ministers elected, they were ignored by these very people after the polls.
The division of political and governmental responsibility—so successful in UPA-1 where things were under control—has been a failure in UPA-2, with intermittent reports that the Congress president and the Prime Minister have not seen eye to eye on some key issues including the Sharm el Shaikh episode right at the beginning of UPA-2 when the Indo-Pak joint statement included a reference to Baluchistan.
No solid vote bank
The Congress also failed to build a solid social base for itself. It had lost its traditional vote bank of upper castes, dalits and minorities to parties like the BJP and regional outfits like the SP, the BSP, the RJD or the LJP. Sonia’s move to give a left ward tilt to UPA-1 helped the ruling party reach out to the poor, which was bolstered by Singh’s appeal among the middle classes and Rahul’s among the younger generation. With the collapse of this social coalition, the Congress appears to be left without a support base to reach the hustings.
The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party—which Rahul ridiculed without naming it as one that promises haircuts to the bald—has not only dented its influence among the poorer sections of the population in Delhi, but, given its track record of anti-graft agitations, intensified the perception of corruption and malgovernance about the Congress. The UPA government has been fighting allegations of multi-billion-rupee serial scams including that of Adarsh society, Commonwealth Games, 2 G spectrum, choppergate, Tetra trucks and coalgate.
The newbie party dealt yet another body blow to the Congress by making its vote-catching slogan since Indira Gandhi’s call of ”garibi hatao’’ (remove poverty) completely redundant. The party can no longer plaster the walls with posters of ”Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath’’ without inviting sniggers, especially after its decision to back AAP in government. It is this slogan that helped Sonia win the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections and steer the government’s agenda with the regime delivering on farm loan waivers and enactments such as NREGA and the right to information in UPA-1 and the food security act in UPA-2. The party is now busy trying to work out another slogan for 2014.
By Saroj Nagi