The congress went into election mode on Monday as party president Sonia Gandhi named her war team with her son and Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi positioned to play a major role as general secretary and Congress Working Committee member.
This was coming. Talk of early elections started gaining ground when the Left parties went ballistic with their opposition to the India-US nuclear deal. They appeared ready for the kill, despite their many protestations. On September 13, the Congress's core group, which includes the Prime Minister and party president, went into a huddle with some other senior leaders. On the table was the possibility of a mid-term election.
The broad view was that if the Left withdraws support, the party should, instead of going for mid-term polls, seek a confidence vote in Parliament, that too if somebody raises the issue on the floor. Talks are on with some parties and individual MPs to prevent early polls. The leaders believe that if the Left pulls the plug, the UPA would need the support — or abstention — of 15 MPs to survive. Calculators are always kept handy nowadays and strategies repeatedly assessed.
But, but and but. For every minority government of the kind led by PV Narasimha Rao, there is a regime that fell such as those headed by VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral or AB Vajpayee in 1996. So, is the Congress, with its 150 Lok Sabha MPs, ready for polls?
The possibility of early elections, which no one wants, appears to have prompted the Congress to set its house in order. The organizational reshuffle has effectively capped the controversy generated by the filing of the controversial affidavit questioning Lord Ram's existence and the cross-talk between its leaders, including R.K. Dhawan, Jairam Ramesh, Digvijay Singh and Salman Khurshid, on whether Culture Minister Ambika Soni should resign or not for it — all happening at a time when the Congress should have been targeting the BJP-NDA.
But that's the Congress. And it is this streak that party leaders say needs to be fixed for being battle-fit. That’s the first task — get leaders to focus on the job at hand and not waste time sniping at each other.
Second, the party's organisational revamp needs to be completed. About a dozen state units are still without regular office-bearers and executives, notable among them being West Bengal where Pranab Mukherjee stepped down as state president more than a year ago. The MP leadership needs a facelift. In Rajasthan, which now has a new PCC president, the party's executive is due for revamp.
Of key concern is the party's state in UP, Bihar and West Bengal — states that together account for 162 of the 543 elective Lok Sabha seats. The BSP's victory in UP has not only hurt the Congress's chances of revival in the Hindi heartland state but also threatens to cut into its votes in Delhi, Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Mayawati will be in the fray in all these states hitherto known for a straight battle between the Congress and BJP-NDA.
The third challenge is to ensure better political management in dealing with dissent and election issues like price rise, terrorism or the nuclear deal where the Left and BJP have grabbed the initiative. At present, Union minister Kapil Sibal is going around the country to sell the deal as a “bijli pani issue”, with some other leaders joining him in the counter campaign.
Dissent and factionalism have always been part of the Congress. And there is enough of that around this time: the Bhajan Lal-backed rebellion by Kuldeep Bishnoi in Haryana, anti-farmer remarks in Maharashtra by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Union minister S.S. Vaghela. Then there are the problems of anti-incumbency in AP and Maharashtra.
Since a majority is unlikely, the fourth issue before the Congress is to hammer out alliances though there is confidence that the UPA would stay intact. “It is still too early to talk about it. In any case, the issue of alliances and coalitions, especially at the Centre, rests with the high command,” said a party functionary.
But in states like Gujarat, it is exploring this possibility. If the NCP had spoiled its chances in nearly two dozen seats last time, it's likely to be hit by the BSP this time. In West Bengal, a Congress-Trinamool tie-up is possible, said Mamata Bannerjee, only if the Congress de-links from the Left as she has done with the NDA.
“Who knows the mid-term polls may throw up another hung Parliament and we may have to turn to the Left again for support, unless of course the communists prop up a third front regime or some allies leave us for a non-NDA, non-UPA alternative," said an AICC member. Efforts at a rapprochement with the TRS in Andhra are also likely.
Finally, as Sonia often underlined, there is a need to take to the people, particularly in Opposition-ruled states, the UPA's achievements, including the flagship Bharat Nirman and job guarantee programmes.
In the absence of a strong anti-poverty campaign, the class element will play second fiddle to caste and communal divides the Congress's rivals have so effectively used to marginalise its presence in its erstwhile citadels.