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Surgery or astrology, the Congress must get cracking

A new-look Congress can retain or wrest power in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and Gujarat

columns Updated: May 29, 2016 00:48 IST
Congress,Amarinder Singh,Prashant Kishor
The Congress would do well to rely on its institutional memory and innovate for the present

A string of electoral defeats, defections and organisational inertia is making pundits predict a dim future for the Congress. Even within, there’s a deep sense of despair, a debilitating demoralisation no party with aspirations to power can afford to harbour.

“We learn nothing, forget nothing,” remarked a Congressman of his ‘status quoist’ party that, he felt, was averse to risk-taking. The phrase was originally used by Talleyrand, the 19th century French statesman for Bourbon émigrés who returned home a quarter century after the French revolution. The suggestion was that the Congress, like the Bourbons, refused to reinvent itself.

READ: Not the end of the road for the Congress

For instance, the last AICC reshuffle and Congress Working Committee revamp was in June 2013. Little has changed in the party since its worst poll debacle two years ago — barring the March 2015 appointment of five new provincial party chiefs and a regional committee president.

The restoration last November of Capt. Amarinder Singh as PPC chief in Punjab, a state where the Congress could end its victory drought, was needlessly delayed. His mass appeal and utility for the party was a no-brainer. Political strategist Prashant Kishor, who earned fame for his equity in electoral successes of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, has since been brought on-board and given a prominent role in Amarinder’s campaign.

Kishor essentially is a ‘methods man’ who could be useful in the madhouse that’s the Congress’s faction-ridden Punjab unit. In UP, where too he has a role, his prowess will face a tougher test with Congresspersons there less than sanguine about a major turnaround in the party’s fortunes.

READ: Out of step with today’s India

For whatever reasons, ad hocism seems to be the Congress’s forte. So former Haryana minister Randeep Surjewala holds temporary charge of the media department while old-guard such as V Narayansamy and PC Chacko play stop-gap points-persons for the party’s affairs in the North-East and Delhi. The story’s similar in Bihar and Karnataka, where the search is still on for successors to sitting PCC chiefs who got ministerial berths last year.

To make matters worse, political hobbyists, technocrats and other sets of experts who engage in on-again-off-again flirtations with politics have greater access to decision-making circles. The full-time “political professional” is forever on the waiting list. “No one person in our party trusts another, except perhaps (AICC treasurer) Motilal Vora and (general secretary) Janardan Dwivedi,” a former minister joked. In Congress circles, they’re known as Siamese twins, forever in each other’s company. Some among the technocrats who have the leadership’s ear are known for their ‘callous ways’ perceived as antagonistic by many. Like the villainous Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, they’re revengeful at the slightest provocation, grumbled an erudite second-rung leader.

Those associated with the party’s frontal organisations — the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India — find the two organisations moribund for want of easy access to Rahul Gandhi. The Congress vice-president has been in charge of these outfits for many years. On account of his larger, pan-Indian responsibilities, he is not exactly a phone-call away from the young cadres.

The result: Confusion compounded by defeat. The NSUI hasn’t won a single central panel seat in Delhi University Students’ Union elections over the last two years; the Youth Congress president in Delhi is at daggers drawn with DPCC president Ajay Maken.

READ: To make inroads in Delhi University politics, AAP floats teachers’ body

Over the years, the Youth Congress has been a nursery of sorts for young talent groomed for the mother party. Many among those who led the organisation in their youth had an enviable rise in the Congress: Ghulam Nabi Azad, PR Dasmunshi, Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik, Manish Tiwari and Randeep Surjewala. “The green shoots aren’t happening anymore,” said a former Youth Congress chief, putting the blame on the long stints of certain leaders at the top.

Elections are due next year in seven states. Uttar Pradesh is difficult terrain where the party does not have a social alliance in place unlike its main rivals, the BSP, SP and BJP. But a new-look Congress can retain or wrest power in Uttarakhand, Himachal, Punjab, Goa and Gujarat.

“Let them getting cracking, surgery or astrology,” quipped a veteran of many elections. He felt a lot of deadwood needed to be weeded out to open vistas for fresh talent: “We can’t remain a party of non-performers.” Another senior leader argued fervently for the rehabilitation of what he called the ‘professional politician’ — feeling edged out by the new elite made up of lateral entries — to counter the 24x7 politicos in other parties.

The crescendo for inspiring, pro-active middle-rung leaders is summed up best by another Talleyrand quote: “I’m more afraid of an army of hundred sheep led by a lion than an army of lions led by a sheep.”

The debacle in the North-East that saw the Congress ceding ground to the BJP in Arunachal and Assam — where the saffron party has painstakingly worked its way to power — shows party managers, old and new, in a poor light. It replicated, in fact, the Andhra fiasco where YSR’s son Jaganmohan Reddy walked out before the state’s bifurcation the way Himanta Biswa Sarma did in Assam.

The people who mishandled Andhra and, thereafter Telangana, refusing TRC chief KCR’s overtures of an alliance, continue to call the shots in Delhi. The worst fall-out from the Assam fiasco, said a party insider, is that it showed Rahul Gandhi as a ‘factional’ leader who backed Tarun Gogoi and his son Gaurav at Sarma’s expense.

Insisting that he not be quoted, a CWC member said the Sonia-Rahul ‘diarchy’ wasn’t working. The Congress president doesn’t normally overturn the vice president’s decisions. Yet the party’s “psychologically split” down the middle between two power centres: “Under duress or of free will, Rahul is acceptable to everybody…But everybody isn’t acceptable to him.”

READ: Cong slams BJP govt over scams

He felt the high command should end the confusion. Either of the two should assume full control, perhaps for the present Sonia, as the party needs her experience and gravitas to deal with current and potential allies. Beyond that, the party must reach tactical, ideological and electoral clarity to repackage itself as an alternative to the BJP.

“Our salvation is in becoming the implicit coalition of ideas that we always were at the prime of our party,” a Congress veteran from the Indira Gandhi era told me. “Our institutional memory matches that of the country. We cannot ideate without relating it to the past and innovating for the present…”

He took a jibe at Congress spokespersons for making comparisons between the 2014 elections and the recent assembly polls to show the slippage in the BJP’s vote share. A party that sits on its hands and imagines rosy scenarios in the face of defeat has no future, he said. “Scoring debating points may help us create a buzz on twitter, not win an election.”

An electoral win is what the Congress needs under its belt to make it look more relevant and fit for a future fight.

First Published: May 29, 2016 00:48 IST