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Congress in the Northeast: Neglect, no direction and a wave of desertions

Unless the AICC decides the Northeast is important; Congress’ state leaders work together; unless it realises that getting up late is no longer an option in elections; and unless it figures out its own story, its revival in the region will be difficult

opinion Updated: Feb 17, 2018 08:27 IST
Prashant Jha
Congress president Rahul Gandhi poses for a photograph, Shillong, Meghalaya, January 31
Congress president Rahul Gandhi poses for a photograph, Shillong, Meghalaya, January 31(PTI)

If one part of the story from Northeast elections is the rise of the BJP, a related element is the decline of the Congress. Indeed, the former would not have been possible without the latter.

Shillong and Aizawl are the only capitals in the region with Congress governments. In the forthcoming set of three elections, the Congress is struggling to retain power in Meghalaya. The stakes are high, because a defeat will leave the Congress with power in only three states across India. In Tripura, where it had got 36.5% of the votes in 2013, it has shrunk drastically, ceding political space to the BJP. Leaders admit they may not win a single seat. And shockingly, in Nagaland, it could not even find 60 candidates to field across the state. And so its best-case scenario remains a score of one out of three, while the BJP hopes for at least two or even a score of three on three.

What explains this startling fall in the Congress’ fortunes? There are certain things outside its control at the moment. Being in the Opposition at the Centre makes it less attractive for local political elites. In addition, it has made mistakes.

One, the Congress high command is not invested in reviving the party in the region. To be fair, the Congress has limited resources. And it has to invest wisely, which is why it gave its all in Gujarat and is now investing all its energy in Karnataka. But this cannot be an excuse for ceding states, especially in a region in which it has had a historical grip. This neglect has taken several forms. Rahul Gandhi has made one visit to Meghalaya and will campaign only once in Tripura. The general secretary in charge of these states, CP Joshi, is widely criticised by state leaders for mismanaging affairs. He has barely spent a day in Agartala in the past few years. The state units complain that the financial support from Centre is almost non-existent — and their request for even a few crores of rupees is often turned down or delayed inordinately. If the message from the All India Congress Committee (AICC) to the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) is that they don’t matter, their states don’t matter, a fall is inevitable.

The second problem is the level of factionalism in each state unit. In Meghalaya, chief minister Mukul Sangma, veteran leader DD Lapang, and MP Vincent Pala aren’t the best of friends. In both Nagaland and Tripura, the party president and working president are barely on talking terms. The Congress leadership in Delhi has let these disputes fester for too long. As a result, a lot of energy is drained, party morale sinks, and there is no sense of a coherent, unified party ready for battle. The art of taking decisions and hand-holding those who may be unhappy about it is missing.

Third is the inability of the Congress to stem the tide of desertions. Once again, while in Opposition, it is difficult to sustain a patronage network which can keep politically ambitious individuals happy. But that is when personal investment in wooing and retaining leaders, sustaining the morale of the cadre, and promising them a better future is key. Letting Himanta Biswa Sarma slip away in Assam was a blunder of huge proportions. The entire Congress legislative wing in Nagaland went and joined the ruling Naga People’s Front after the last election. Almost the entire top brass of the BJP Tripura unit, and thousands of workers, have come from the Congress. In Meghalaya, if the BJP or the Nagaland People’s Party’s fortunes have picked up, it is because former Congress ministers have moved out.

The fourth is waking up late. In the new, ultra-competitive world of elections where the BJP has rewritten the rules, beginning campaigns early is indispensable to success. Even a preliminary trip in early January was enough to show that the Congress had left its messaging, organisational work, and ticket distribution till too late. And what this does is allow others to capture the momentum.

And finally, the Congress is at a complete loss in terms of a narrative and message. When it is a challenger, it is not aggressive enough. When it is an incumbent, it is not able to defend its record. It has lost the art of stitching together multi-ethnic alliances, so critical to political success in Northeast. It has lost the skill of saying different things to different constituencies, yet being able to take them all together. It is not seen as standing for either development or identity rights.

Unless the AICC decides the Northeast is important, unless state leaders work together and factional battles are resolved, unless incentives change and the desertions stop, unless the Congress realises that getting up late is no longer an option in elections, and unless it figures out its own story, its revival in the region will be difficult.

If the Congress thinks that losing a few of these elections does not matter, and that it can win back these states once it is back at the Centre, it may be operating on a flawed assumption. The BJP, once it enters this territory, will not cede political space so easily. It is time for Rahul Gandhi to look east.

prashant.jha1@hindustantimes.com