Congress shouldn’t get carried away by Lakhimpur Kheri. Fix structural issues
Politics essentially is about seizing the moment, of being first off the block against rivals. That’s what Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did in Uttar Pradesh (UP)’s Lakhimpur Kheri where four protesting farmers were mowed down by the cavalcade of a union minister’s son.
Almost overnight, the Congress, which had been off the people’s radar in the poll-bound state, got to dominate the talking space, even as chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath’s stronger rivals, the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s Akhilesh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s Mayawati, watched from faraway Lucknow.
A riveting spectacle it was of a Gandhi family member leading by example to galvanise cadres across factions and divides that afflict the Congress. The optics got better when Rahul Gandhi joined his sister in the company of Charanjit Singh Channi and Bhupesh Bhagel, the CMs of Punjab and Chattisgarh. Such was the domino effect that in real-time terms, the party’s poll prospects seemed to have gotten better in Punjab, where it has self-flagellated no end, as also the adjoining Uttarakhand.
Even the fissures embodied by reformists in the party’s central architecture seemed to be on the mend. Almost on cue, a prominent G-23 member, Bhupinder Singh Hooda rushed in solidarity from Haryana, Navjot Sidhu from Punjab, Harish Rawat from Uttarakhand and Sachin Pilot from Rajasthan. They all were stopped at UP’s borders—but not before they’d shown that the Congress has its limbs intact!
Will Lakhimpur Kheri be another flash in the pan?
Yet, the question remains whether the grand old party is up for a fight in UP and elsewhere? Or is Priyanka’s dramatic wee-hour appearance and detention on October 6 at Sitapur, over a 100 km off the trouble spot in Kheri, another flash in the pan?
The scepticism is valid as the brother-sister duo’s 2020 photo-op was no less poignant in Hathras where the Yogi administration cremated a Dalit gang-rape victim against her family’s wishes. The Gandhi siblings departed from the issue midway through, with no ground-effort at building a movement around “atrocities against scheduled castes”, despite Dalits being the Congress’s bulwark till the BSP stole the ground beneath their feet in the early 1990s.
The follow through was no less dismal on the 2017 farmers’ stir that the party brass led in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur or Rahul Gandhi’s much-televised 2011 support for the agitation against land acquisition (by the Mayawati regime) in UP’s Bhatta-Parsaul.
These were the openings the Congress could have used to expand its base. It failed because the leadership couldn’t stay the course the way Indira Gandhi did after her historic 1977 Belchi yatra astride an elephant to empathise with the families of Dalits massacred by upper caste militia in Bihar.
Political strategist Prashant Kishor, who is believed to have submitted to the Gandhis a blue print for the Congress’s organisational overhaul, was the first to sound the warning bell. In the middle of the Kheri euphoria, he tweeted: “People looking for a quick, spontaneous revival of GOP (Grand Old Party)-led Opposition based on #LakhimpurKheri are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. Unfortunately there are no quick fix solutions for the deep-rooted problems and structural weakness of GOP.”
Several party veterans, including those opposed to Kishor’s entry to the party, tended to agree. “Long term politics isn’t just about staging media events; it’s about building movements around burning issues,” remarked an old-timer. Only through such on-ground toil, do parties pick up organisational vigour, stitching up sustainable socio-economic alliances for electoral dividends.
The Congress sadly hasn’t ventured on that road for years. That is why several young and promising leaders, including those who shared the spotlight with Rahul, have defected in recent years. They weren’t as much worried about their future in the Congress. They left because they felt the party itself had no future.
The self-esteem so essential in leadership roles had waned. Of gnawing concern was the Congress’s back-to-back pulverisation in the general elections, coupled with its inability to wrest or retain power in states. The ferment in provinces where it runs governments or is a stakeholder, is actually a trickle-down effect of the organisational drift left unaddressed since Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 resignation as Congress president. For want of firm stewardship, the party has been prone to lethal, on-ground absenteeism.
Missing chain of command in Delhi
There indeed are many other reasons for the overwhelming despair, foremost among them being the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s sledgehammer instincts which spare no tactics, fair or foul. The Congress hasn’t fully realised that it cannot fight an enormously powerful rival without a clearly defined chain of command in Delhi and in the state capitals of interest. The opacity in hierarchy, with Rahul Gandhi sporadically exercising power without a de jure cover, has rendered the party moribund at multiple tiers. The breakdown of intra-party communication is at the root of the despondency among cadres.
The party’s well-intentioned contingency plans are pivoted feebly around restoring faith in its ability to hold talent and retain power. “We cannot afford a repeat of MP or Karnataka in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Punjab,” remarked an official of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). “We’ve to stem the exodus that saw the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Himanta Biswa Sharma, Sushmita Dev and Jitin Prasada finding placements in other parties.”
The outcome isn’t encouraging – not yet. On the execution front, the anxiety of holding power while keeping together its flock has made the leadership susceptible to getting pressured, even arm-twisted by promising leaders insistent on plum roles. Names which come to mind on that score are of Pilot and Sidhu. They both are gutsy campaigners, the former way more tactful and acceptable among his peers than the latter.
In Chattisgarh, TS Singh Deo isn’t young but is most certainly influential. He hasn’t crossed any red lines, not yet, in his tussle with Baghel, the incumbent CM whose position he’s eyeing. But the latter is in no mood however to relinquish office.
Sidhu’s new feud in Punjab
In Punjab, the party has saved its government while effecting a leadership change. The operation, so to speak, was successful on account of the solid majority it had in the assembly. But the ousted CM, Captain Amarinder Singh, has decided to end his decades-old ties with the party, feeling “humiliated” over the manner in which he was treated by the leadership. After he demitted office without fuss, no Congress leader of consequence called on him to assuage his hurt pride. The last word on the stalemate is yet to be heard as Captain is planning to float his own party to settle scores with Sidhu, his bête noire who became the state unit chief against his advice.
For the present, the Captain’s challenge, predicated on a possible tie-up with the BJP, looks dented badly by the Lakhimpur Kheri incidents on the saffron party’s watch. If not in UP, where it is in shambles organisationally, the Congress might gain from the optics of Channi’s presence by Rahul Gandhi’s side in Kheri. In the worst case scenario, Singh can hurt the Congress the way that Chirag Paswan damaged Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
That brings one to another sticking point with potential to unravel the Congress’s Punjab edifice ahead of the elections next year. The projected gains of giving the state its first scheduled caste Sikh CM could come unstuck if tensions continue to simmer between the new incumbent and the overly ambitious Sidhu.
They were comrades-in-arms against the ousted CM. The equations have since changed, what with Sidhu viewing Channi as a rival who’d be hard to dislodge in the event of the Congress retaining power. That’s because removing a victorious Dalit leader after elections will have serious pan-Indian consequences for the party hard put to rebuilding its lost constituency among the scheduled castes.
Punjab was snakes and ladders, Rajasthan is a Rubik’s cube
Compared to Punjab, the Congress, in numerical terms, skates on thin ice in Rajasthan. That makes the intra-party impasse as serious as it was in Madhya Pradesh, where Scindia’s exit brought Kamal Nath down. The government there will be in serious trouble if Ashok Gehlot, the sitting CM, is given the short shrift that Captain Singh felt he got from the central leadership.
What makes the Congress’s crisis in the desert state similar to the one in Punjab is the near-complete absence of chemistry between Gehlot and Pilot, al la Singh and Sidhu. But the arithmetic there is beyond even the wizardry of Shakuntala Devi.
That ironically is the CM’s strength.
In a House of 200, the Congress’s own tally is a little over a 100. Its mainstay is the support of 12 independently elected legislators (most of them Congressman denied tickets by Pilot who then was the state unit chief) and six defectors from the Bahujan Samaj Party. The independents owe their loyalty to Gehlot who helped them in the elections.
Certain events on the calendar render the Rajasthan conundrum doubly intricate. Once Goa goes to polls in February next year, the tenability of defections from the BSP might come up for adjudication. The BJP hasn’t proactively pursued the matter in the Supreme Court (which recently put the legislators on notice) as its own house in Goa has had its share of turncoats, including from the Congress.
AICC officials in the know of things expect a BJP onslaught between the Goa polls and July 2022, when four Rajya Sabha seats from Rajasthan will be up for grabs. That makes remote the possibility of any leadership change. An effort midway through can yet be made to accommodate Pilot’s followers in the council of ministers and other administrative positions. Whatever it takes to make it happen, theirs’ is a rightful demand which has to be met.
It won’t be easy, however, to strike a balance between the Pilot camp and the independents plus the BSP defectors, totalling 18. This group had kept the Gehlot regime afloat when Pilot rebelled last year with an equal number of 18 Congress MLAs. The independents and the arrivals from the BSP weren’t rewarded in 2018 when Pilot’s men got 10 ministerial slots including that of deputy CM. The quandary now is — whom to accommodate and who to leave out of the three dozen claimants to the nine cabinet vacancies the Pilot rebellion caused?
Party insiders admit that unlike Singh who had alienated himself from the MLAs in Punjab, Gehlot has a tight hold on the Congress legislature party. The situation can change, but a majority of those who were with Pilot have come to lean towards the CM.
To be fair, the rebellious former deputy CM was won over by emissaries, notably the late Ahmed Patel, political secretary of the Congress president, on the promise of a respectable share in power. Patel had later confided in party colleagues that the way the numbers were staked in the assembly, it wasn’t possible to deliver completely on the terms he negotiated.
The room for manoeuvre being scarce, the solution could be in careful political masonry. The jerry built legislature party there cannot bear conflict. Only a mutually honourable rapprochement can help Gehlot and Pilot. Difficult though, it will be worth a try.
But this glance at the political landscape and Congress’s challenges — both in Delhi and in states; both on organisational questions and on leadership — shows that India’s grand old party needs to do a lot more to be able to sustain the momentum its mobilisation after Lakhimpur Kheri has generated.
HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and juxtaposes the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close, in HT Premium.
The views expressed are personal