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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

The Congress has to be redone stitch by stitch

Its failure to learn from mistakes, manage party affairs, and read the public pulse lies at the roots of the crisis

analysis Updated: Sep 13, 2019 19:47 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
The Congress must script a counter-narrative to the BJP by focusing on life-issues, including gainful employment
The Congress must script a counter-narrative to the BJP by focusing on life-issues, including gainful employment(PTI)

The Congress was dismantled bit by bit before its big 2014 defeat when its tally was reduced to the lowest-ever in the Lok Sabha. Unable to recover from the debilitating decline, it tripped from one crisis to another in the intervening five years, barring a mix of emphatic and pyrrhic victories in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The party had given up without a fight — amid mounting charges of graft — when Narendra Modi first became prime minister. In the next big test in 2019, it got the political narrative wrong. The incoherent, unconvincing campaign it ran was a throwback to the 1999 polls in the aftermath of the Kargil war.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hyperbole during the first-ever televised war then drowned out the Congress’ ripostes. Not only was the party out of sync with popular sentiment, its failure to form a government after toppling AB Vajpayee robbed it of the attributes of a better alternative. The Congress gifted Vajpayee the 1999 victory, despite the massive security failure on his watch that had Pakistan intruding deep into Indian territory.

One reason why the Congress did so badly in 2014 was the self-inflicted Andhra Pradesh fiasco that annihilated its base in the state from where it got the maximum numbers to set up regimes in Delhi in 2004 and 2009. The state’s reorganisation shortly before the polls led to its decimation in residuary Andhra with no matching gains in Telangana.

The Congress’s lordly handling of the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s ambitious son Jagan Mohan, was a flashback of sorts to 1982. At the time, Rajiv Gandhi, a freshly-minted party general secretary, had publicly rebuked then chief minister T Anjaiah. The insult left the Dalit leader in tears, providing the fledgling Telugu Desam Party of NT Ramarao an opening to capture power on the plank of Telugu atmagaurawam (pride).

In Jagan’s case, the proverbial last straw was the leadership’s diktat asking him to abandon his cross-Andhra march to set up YSR’s statues. He refused and walked out of the party, taking en bloc its cadres. This was a repeat of Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal template, which made the breakaway faction the main party and the remnant Congress a rump group.

The YSR-Congress leader’s experience had his camp-followers compare his erstwhile party with a deity that used its many arms to at once placate, caress and throttle. Or else, what does one make of Jagan’s Telugu-speaking mother who cannot converse in Hindi or English being ushered into a one-on-one meeting with a top Congress leader unfamiliar with Telugu.

There are countless examples of such mismanagement smacking of intra-party attrition. Take, for instance, the case of a leader desirous of an organisational role receiving a late night call in the lead-up to the 2019 polls. On the line was an influential party official with the query whether he’d fight elections from a key Uttar Pradesh (UP) constituency scheduled for polling a month later. The leader bluntly refused, saying he stood no chance of winning.

But victory and defeat are part of political life, the official told the leader who, in his youth, had contested against Charan Singh. Yes indeed, the leader replied, pointing out that defeats were an investment at the advent and not in the twilight of a politician’s career.

The conversation ended with the leader agreeing to meet Priyanka Gandhi Vadra the next morning. When he turned up at the appointed hour, he had waiting for him the previous night’s caller and another party official. Priyanka’s perhaps was the name they used to get him to come.

A similar lack of seriousness was evident in the half-hearted attempts to rope in allies for the assembly polls in Rajasthan. Prominent Jat leaders such as Hanuman Beniwal and Col Sona Ram couldn’t be won over for want of the “assurances” they sought from the Congress interlocutors.

What took the cake was the Congress’s post-Balakot narrative. Its questions on the efficacy of the Indian air-strikes on a terrorist base in Pakistan broke the barriers of restraint prescribed by top foreign policy and military experts it had co-opted for advice.

The result: As had happened post-Kargil, the BJP twisted the discourse to show the Congress as being on the same page as Pakistan. Its hyper-nationalistic line also helped it firewall and turn to its advantage the Opposition’s charges of graft in the Rafale fighter deal.

Undone bit by bit, the Congress has to be redone stitch by stitch. Sonia Gandhi is back at the helm with her consensus-building skills. She has pulled, or so it seems, the party out of the morass it was in Haryana. Next on her agenda should be the other, equally faction-ridden states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.But immediate-term measures will be of little use without long-term revival plans in these and other key Hindi heartland states. Priyanka’s approach to build the party from the grassroots in UP is worth a try in Bihar. In both states, the party requires social alliances held together by life-issue themes: Employment, sustenance, justice, security and equity. These leitmotifs can script a forceful counter-narrative to the BJP’s diversionary emotive pitch.

First Published: Sep 13, 2019 19:47 IST