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Party poopers

The congress is again at a crossroads. Ten years ago, when Sonia Gandhi entered active politics, it was a similar situation, the party seemed to have lost its winning formula, writes Pankaj Vohra.

columns Updated: Jun 21, 2008 23:12 IST
Pankaj Vohra

The Congress is again at a crossroads. Ten years ago, when Sonia Gandhi entered active politics, it was a similar situation — the party seemed to have lost its winning formula. She had inherited a faction-ridden, demoralised party, and her two predecessors, PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, couldn’t inspire the cadres.

It was an uphill task, but Sonia Gandhi managed to bring the Congress back to power at the Centre. At one stage, the party even ruled 15 states, including J&K, where it had been in wilderness for nearly 30 years. Now, after a massive drubbing at the hands of Narendra Modi in Gujarat and two embarrassing defeats in Punjab and Uttarakhand, the question being asked is whether the Congress will once again be able to stand on its own feet.

It’s being pointed out that unlike ten years ago, when Sonia faced the challenge single-handedly, this time, she has her son, Rahul Gandhi, by her side as a party general secretary, and thus a chance at greater success. But for the Congress to resuscitate itself, others in the party too need to pull up their socks.

It has become routine to involve Sonia in everything, so that when those lower down the order fail because of a lack of strategy or vision, they can take refuge in the fact that she was involved and their role was inconsequential. Such people do not realise that Sonia has brought them thus far, and nobody in the Congress works harder than her. They certainly can’t absolve themselves of responsibility.

What the Congress lacks today is both an organisation network at the grassroots — which used to be its strength — and accountability at the party and government functionary level. Sonia can at best lead from the front, but others can’t shy away from their role of planning the strategy and blueprint for the elections.

Congress leaders have got demoralised after the Gujarat debacle, but obviously, they were unable to read the situation at the ground level. They did not anticipate that using phrases like ‘maut ka saudagar’ could boomerang on them. The story doing the rounds in the AICC is that Sonia had objected to the use of the phrase when the speech was brought to her. But two of her aides insisted there was nothing wrong with it. Reportedly, even after using the phrase twice in Gujarat, she expressed her discomfort with it. But by then, the damage had already been done.

There have been previous instances too, when Sonia would probably have fared better if she had gone by her own instincts, but her aides forced her to make mistakes. The question that arises then is why she persists with a team that has consistently let her down. Is this a strategic play on her part or does she allow things to pass once the crisis blows over? Whatever be the reason, the party has suffered on account of her poor advisors, and general secretaries are as much responsible for it as anyone else.

There are players within the Congress whose ambition of occupying the highest post remain unfulfilled. There are others who serve business houses more than they serve the party. Thorough soul-searching needs to take place so that these issues are addressed once and for all.

There has also been a lot of heartburn caused over people from other parties joining the Congress and becoming more important than those who have served the organisation for decades. In the name of inducting fresh blood and ideas, many have been drafted into the party without verifying whether their ideological DNA was similar to that of the Congress. In Gujarat, where the fight was against communal forces, several BJP rebels were given tickets or used in the campaign. Does this make them secular overnight? In fact, barring Bharat Solanki, many of the leaders used by the Congress in the campaign were originally from other parties. This created a negative impression.

Can leaders who switch loyalties be really trusted? When they were not loyal to their original parties, how can they be loyal to the Congress? Plus, there is also the issue of an ideological conflict. Does the Congress not have enough talent of its own?

One is reminded of the late Raj Narain, who is understood to have asked of some of his voters in Rae Bareli after defeating Indira Gandhi in 1977 how he could expect them to be loyal to him when they were not loyal to a woman who had done so much for them. But that is politics. There are many legislators and MPs originally from other parties now wearing the Congress shirt, causing heartburn among the cadres.

There are lessons the party must learn, especially when it should start preparing to face a parliamentary poll in 2009, or even before. While the BJP, under L.K. Advani, seems to be already identifying candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, no such exercise has started in the Congress. There seems to be no game-plan and no attempt to strengthen and rejuvenate the cadres. Sonia had done very well in calling a meeting of district and block presidents some years ago, but no such meeting has taken place in a long time. The cadres are disappointed with their government, in which ministers are both inaccessible and insensitive. Such elements too have to be weeded out or made responsible.

The Congress must realise that it is the only party that is still a brand in India. It should build on its strengths and not try to prove its secular or pro-weaker section credentials to anybody. The overplaying of the minority card is hurting the party as much as the apathy and indifference of office-bearers and ministers. Sonia has done more than her share for the party. She can now help the Congressmen only if they are prepared to help themselves. Between us.