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The best way to keep the Congress alive is to make the ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ brandname irrelevant, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: May 29, 2008 21:10 IST

Political soundbites can be rather tiresome and predictable on television. Nothing exemplifies this better than when a Congress politician is asked at election time who the party’s chief ministerial candidate is. The standard response: “Please do not ask this question. We have a tradition in the party where the Congress High Command decides on the question of leadership after the elections.”

Ah! The ubiquitous ‘High Command’, the Congress party’s answer to 21st century royalty. Buckingham Palace may have grandeur without power, Nepal may have thrown out its kings, but here, 10 Janpath appears to enjoy power without the formal coronation. Decision-making in the 123-year-old Grand Old Party of the freedom movement is concentrated around one Lutyens bungalow. No one else, it would seem, has any authority to take the decisions that matter. In an era when the mantra of corporate success is decentralised empowerment, one ageing family firm seems determined to buck the trend by refusing to change.

Karnataka is only the latest example of the time warp the Congress is trapped in: a campaign remote-controlled from Delhi was doomed for failure in the distant Deccan. Take the case of S.M. Krishna, once the posterboy of Bangalore’s info-tech revolution. Exhumed from the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai just months before the elections, his role remained undefined till the end. He was supposed to be the party’s chief campaigner. And yet, there was fierce resistance to projecting him as a potential Chief Minister. He was supposed to ensure victory in the polls, but his supporters were denied tickets even in his home district. A tired, forlorn-looking figure, Krishna’s predicament reflects the growing isolation of regional chieftains in a political party apparatus where there is a Supreme Leader and the First Family, while the others are all expected to play the role of faithful lieutenants.

Contrast that with the BJP’s aggressive projection of B.S. Yeddyurappa as their Chief Minister-in-waiting. Yeddyurappa may have been closely identified with the dominant Lingayat community in Karnataka. But at least he was able to provide the undecided voter of the state with a clear alternative. By contrast, the Congress’s response of a collective leadership became synonymous with a gaggle of feuding leaders unable to work together. Why should a voter choose an anonymous Chief Minister when he is being shown an instantly identifiable option?

An equally stark contrast is provided in the nature of the election management of the two main parties. For the BJP, Arun Jaitley and his team had the authority to take tough decisions, to unite warring factions, and run an election campaign without looking to the party’s central leadership for approval. A Jaitley may not see eye to eye with party president Rajnath Singh, but that didn’t come in the way of his being the BJP’s undisputed chief election manager.

On the other hand, the Congress’s Karnataka-in-charge, Prithviraj Chavan, was constantly undermined by a party structure in which alleged proximity to Sonia Gandhi of a handful of drawing room politicians becomes an instrument of undiluted power and petty ambition. How does one explain, for example, the attitude of a Margaret Alva who appeared to lose interest in the Karnataka elections once her son was denied a ticket? Or the clout of a former Chief Minister like Veerappa Moily who would struggle to win a municipal election in his home district of Udipi?

The Congress’s style of managing elections worked in a monopolistic era where, especially in states like Karnataka, the party had the benefit of being supported by a large social coalition. As that coalition began to come apart and state elections became increasingly regionalised and competitive, the ‘top down’ approach of running elections was no longer possible. A whirlwind road yatra by a Rahul Gandhi here, four days of campaigning by Sonia Gandhi there, are no longer enough. Instead, each constituency has to be micro-managed, with an astute mix of caste calculations, local alliances, money power, rebel management and targeted campaign themes.

In Karnataka, there were as many as 20 constituencies where the margin of defeat was less than 2,000 votes, 16 of which the Congress lost. Four Congress rebels won their seats, while another ten got more than 10,000 votes. In a tightly fought election, these statistics suggest that the Congress was unable to handle the constituency-level management that often makes all the difference between victory and defeat.

But after losing nine of the last ten assembly elections (including three in the North-east), it is apparent that the malaise goes well beyond Karnataka. The Opposition would like to suggest that the serial defeats are a referendum on Manmohan Singh’s government. While issues like price rise do influence the political atmosphere, the fact is that state elections are increasingly not fought on the so-called big ‘national’ issues, but more on a medley of local conflicts. Managing these local issues requires state leaders to be empowered and to stay connected with their constituents. This can happen only when there is a robust party machine in place and when decision-making is truly democratic and inclusive.

Unfortunately, for the Congress, its election machine is rusting even while decisions are still taken in a feudal manner. Just take a look at the health of the party in this winter’s crucial battleground states that will almost certainly set the tone for next year’s general elections. In Rajasthan, the party is caught in a bind, uncertain of whom to project as a leader. In Madhya Pradesh, its state president is Suresh Pachauri who has never won a Lok Sabha election and is as close to being a mass leader as the Deccan Chargers are to winning the IPL. In Chhattisgarh, it has allowed discredited leaders like Ajit Jogi and V.C. Shukla to battle it out. In Delhi, its most credible chief ministerial face, Sheila Dikshit, has been downsized by factional politics.

Can such a party really hope to be election-ready in the next six months? Part of the political game is to live in eternal hope. A section of the Congress remains convinced that the wheel of anti-incumbency will rotate in its direction this winter, while the benefit of having a larger alliance will be enough for the UPA to score over the NDA in the general elections. In other words, the party doesn’t need to effect any dramatic change in its style of functioning. It’s this status quo-ist politics that is primarily responsible for the messy situation the party finds itself in.

The Congress has really no option: either it embraces change by disentangling itself from Delhi-based coterie politics. Or it simply withers away as a premier national party. The very ‘High Command’ that has been the glue that has held the party together is today more a barrier that is retarding growth. Surely, Sonia Gandhi is aware that the crisis that confronts her party is acute enough to effect a major course correction by empowering regional satraps and a new generation of leaders? Or have the four years in power deadened the reflexes to the point where she is now totally risk averse?

Maybe, she could start with her son. For much too long, Rahul has been mollycoddled. Even now, he seems to step out only occasionally, that too in a manner that suggests discomfort with the demands of mass politics. Attending extended strategy sessions is very different from the heat and dust of an election battlefield. Spending a night with a Dalit family may be an attractive ph oto-op, but it isn’t the kind of hands-on dynamic leadership that the Congress desperately needs. Perhaps the first family needs to realise that the best way to keep the family legacy alive is to make the mere family name irrelevant.

Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network