Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi speaks to the media in New Delhi. AP Photo/Pankaj Nangia
For all our sniggering at the Congress and Rahul Gandhi - who now accepts the blame squarely - for their grand failure in Uttar Pradesh, a failure now being placed by Congressmen at the doors of the party's organisation in the state, I have reason to believe that Congress leaders might just be right - without quite knowing what exactly might be wrong.
When the Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during the municipal elections in Mumbai last month, I had said that its leaders were clueless. They had no campaigners and no organisation worth the name. They had hoped to sail through simply on the basis of the failures of the incumbent party, the Shiv Sena, and the Nehru-Gandhi name, resting on their laurels without anything new or positive of their own to offer the electorate.
I can clearly see that the same has now happened in UP as well as in Punjab to a large extent. Moreover, identically, as obvious in Punjab again and, to a lesser extent, in Uttarakhand, local corruption has been seen as a far less evil than the big ticket corruption at the Centre. (The exception being in Goa where the issue of local corruption of the ruling Congress overwhelmed all else.) The Congress has had to pay the price with this series of defeats that includes the one in Mumbai last month, even though the anti-incumbency faced by opponents should have brought them clear victories.
Sharad Pawar had told me several years ago that Congressmen never believe in working for their own victory. They just rely on the Nehru-Gandhi charisma and sit back, hoping to reap the fruits of either other people's labours or their rivals' failures. Now Avinash Pande, a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, who is the All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, tells me the same. "There is no doubt that Rahul Gandhi's unparalleled and untiring efforts in UP have got us the number of seats we now have in the assembly. Otherwise we might have been down to half." He rues the fact that no candidate worked the peculiarities of his own constituency towards a victory and that Gandhi did not get the backing of grassroots workers - because, perhaps, there weren't any.
And that's what seems fantastic about the UP story. For as Pande, who was deputy to AICC general secretary Digivijaya Singh in UP, tells me, in the four months that he did not set a foot out of UP, he discovered not just the lack of a party organisation but 'nakli Congressis' throughout the length and breadth of the state. Apparently, even as genuine Congress leaders don't bother with the party organisation any more, wherever some semblance of a Congressman exists, the set-up has been captured by closet sympathisers of the SP or the BSP. "They take money from us, pretend to work for the Congress but divert our votes [which are similar] to the SP or the BSP at the eleventh hour. All our assessments, predictably, go wrong. Unless we weed them out and build up the organisation with genuine believers in the Congress, we are bound to be disappointed.''
While that might sound like a unique excuse from a committed Congressman, I have seen it happen before in Maharashtra vis-à-vis Pawar who, even before he had split the Congress, was wont to infiltrate every party in his home state and place a handful of core supporters within each organisation, including the Shiv Sena. This helped in countering strategies with insider information and even helped swing marginal seats by the diversion of votes.
So while these poachers and faux-sympathisers may well be the reason why the Congress failed to convert the huge crowds at Rahul Gandhi's rallies into votes and eventually seats, I am surprised that an old warhorse like Digvijaya Singh was so out of touch with reality. So out of touch that, only a month ago, he even wagered a crate of premium whiskey with some journalists in Mumbai on counting day, sure that his party would get at least a 100 seats if not more.
And, if what Pande says is true, cleaning up the party organisation in UP alone might not be enough. When both the Congress and Pawar were expecting to decimate the Shiv Sena, Pawar had said that "the next battle will be between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party'' because they have similar vote banks.
But I can see that situation has already come to pass in UP: the fundamentals of the Congress that Rahul talked about are clearly the same as that of the SP. And that crate of whiskey might be a long time coming!