The Congress needs to clear the confusion over its leadership

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: May 24, 2016 21:49 IST
The Congress argues that for the poor, who constitute the bulk of the electorate, it is not who you are but what you do that matters. (Vipin Kumar / HT Photo)

One important difference between the BJP and the Congress is that the BJP always thinks strategically. So, there was a marked difference in the manner both parties behaved prior to assembly election results.

The Congress recognised that defeat was imminent in Assam. In private, the party’s leaders predicted a majority for the BJP-led alliance, and they admitted that things had gone badly wrong in Kerala.

The Congress simply awaited the results with the air of a prisoner on death row. The BJP, on the other hand, recognised that these results presented a huge opportunity.

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Over the last several months, things have not gone according to plan for the Modi government. Apart from the defeats in Bihar and Delhi, there has been discontent about the failure of the economy to soar as high as Narendra Modi promised, about the failure of the government’s Pakistan policy and about a rising emphasis on nationalism.

Further, despite its tiny strength in the Lok Sabha, the Congress has been an effective opposition, blocking many of the government’s legislative initiatives.

The spirit of 2014, when the BJP seemed all-powerful and the Congress was on its deathbed, seemed to be fading.

The BJP realised that the Congress would lose in Assam and would be defeated in Kerala, where elections follow a pendulum pattern. It realised also, that these defeats would give it the perfect opportunity to recapture the spirit of 2014.

And so, in recent weeks, it focused on corruption scams from the UPA era, suggested that Sonia Gandhi was personally involved and implied that, because she was Italian-born, she funnelled taxpayers’ money into Italy. (AgustaWestland, for instance.)

It was pretty much the same sort of attack that preceded the 2014 parliamentary election and it had the effect of putting the Congress on the defensive and neutering its parliamentary aggression.

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When the results were declared and showed that Congress had, in fact, lost Assam and Kerala, it seemed like 2014 once again.

Sure enough, the media response to the defeats has followed exactly the same lines as the post parliamentary-election commentary: the Congress is dying; the Gandhis are out of touch with the grassroots; Rahul Gandhi is an incompetent leader, etc.

The effectiveness of the BJP’s strategy in handling the victories and in rekindling the Spirit of 2014, tells us something about the Congress’s strategic failures. Most political parties know how to manage the fallout of defeat. Some, like the BJP, know how to multiply the significance of a victory. But the Congress, alas, knows neither.

That failure to think ahead and gauge where public opinion is headed has characterised the Congress over the last four years. During UPA II, the party failed to understand how corruption scandals and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s somnambulistic performance would hurt. When the whole world was turning to social media, the Congress let the BJP dominate Twitter and Facebook. Ministers like Shashi Tharoor, who were Twitter pioneers, were publicly reprimanded. In the process the party failed to connect with a whole generation of educated Indians who now see it as lazy, corrupt and arrogant.

But the Congress’ problems do not end there. It still has to establish a clear connect with its own cadres. The precedent for the relationship between the Congress president and the vice president should be the Indira-Rajiv equation from 1981-84. Then too, older Congressmen complained about the “arrogance” of Rajiv and his “computerwallas” but there was never any confusion about who was boss. Now, the equation seems more complex, not just to party workers, but also to state leaders.

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Nor has the party been able to find the right balance in dealing with its regional bosses. Till two years ago, critics complained that the party was ruled from Delhi and that state leaders had no room for initiative. Perhaps, as a response, the balance has swung the other way. In Assam, for instance, it was staggeringly obvious that Tarun Gogoi wanted to drive Himanta Biswa Sarma away so that his son, Gaurav, could inherit the leadership. Gogoi’s insistence that no alliances were required cost the Congress the election.

And yet, the central hierarchy did nothing, arguing that as the man on the spot, Gogoi must be allowed to take his own decisions. The case of Oommen Chandy in Kerala is less extreme — he had no personal agenda but was allowed to fight the campaign as he wished, with no input from Delhi.

So yes, it’s wrong to run the state from Delhi. But it is wrong to entrust your fate entirely to the satraps. A better balance has to be found.

And finally, there’s the problem of the future. In essence, this rests on a simple calculation. The BJP believes that this is a new aspirational India which likes leaders who rise from the ranks. The Congress, it says, is the party of the divine right to rule, of privilege and of dynasty.

The Congress argues that for the poor, who constitute the bulk of the electorate, it is not who you are but what you do that matters. If you can convince the people of India that you are willing and able to help them, they don’t really care whether or not you speak good English or that you went to Doon School.

These are two competing visions of leadership and so far, it is hard to tell which one is valid. Yes, there is frequent criticism of the Congress’s distant and privileged leadership. On the other hand, Jayalalithaa with her perfect convent school English and her regal manner, remains the queen of Tamil Nadu: nobody objects to her air of privilege and entitlement.

But if the BJP is right, then there could be more trouble ahead for the Congress. The party has an outstanding younger generation that is readying to take over. But nearly every single one of them is a creature of privilege. And the vast majority are dynasts.

It is a prospect that should worry the Congress.

Views expressed are personal.

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