Down But Not Out

Although the Congress has been thumped in the elec­tions, it would be pre­ma­ture, and even reck­less, to write it off.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

Does the belief that the Gand­his are the glue which keeps the In­dian Na­tional Congress to­gether still hold good?

In­dia's 2014 gen­eral elec­tions were his­toric and the re­sult was far from any ex­pec­ta­tion. The old­est po­lit­i­cal party of the coun­try, the In­dian Na­tional Congress, came out trau­ma­tized after fac­ing an un­prece­dented de­ba­cle. As one party leader said, "Ev­ery­one is shocked. Our in­ter­nal survey had pre­dicted some 110 seats – but it's a com­plete rout." Never in its long his­tory did the Cong suf­fer a de­feat of such mag­ni­tude. With only 44 seats in a house of 543, it was not even in a po­si­tion to as­sume the role of the leader of the op­po­si­tion.

A de­bate is rag­ing about the Congress’ fu­ture. Ac­cord­ing to doom­say­ers, the last elec­tions were the party's swan song. Many be­lieve that it must shed the dy­nas­tic hold of the Gandhi-Nehru fam­ily and in­fuse

new blood. Oth­ers counter this line of ar­gu­ment by in­vok­ing the fa­mous Ger­man proverb: "Aufgeschoben ist nicht aufge­hoben,” which means post­poned is not aban­doned or, in sim­pler words, down is not out.

To support their case, they point out that the Congress has also been down be­fore – in 1977 – when it was drubbed at the polls after Indira Gandhi en­forced emer­gency rule, and also in 2004, when a BJP-led gov­ern­ment swept into power for the first time. On both oc­ca­sions, the party re­cov­ered to win the next na­tional elec­tions. There­fore, it would be pre­ma­ture and even reck­less to write it off.

What went wrong is the ques­tion on every­body's mind both within the party and out­side. The in­sid­ers are in an in­tro­spec­tive, soul-search­ing mode. The out­siders seek clues as an aca­demic ex­er­cise.

In the first re­ac­tion to the de­feat, both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity and of­fered to re­sign. But the Congress Work­ing Com­mit­tee would have none of it. Jawa­har­lal Nehru set the newly in­de­pen­dent na­tion on a sta­ble course. His daugh­ter Indira and his grand­son Ra­jiv sac­ri­ficed their lives while serv­ing the coun­try. Their ser­vices and sac­ri­fices are too pre­cious to be for­got­ten. More­over, like the once popular slo­gan ‘Indira is In­dia’, the Congress is Nehru-Gandhi. In fact, most ob­servers are of the view that the Gand­his act as the glue which keeps the party to­gether. There­fore, a state­ment re­leased by the com­mit­tee said, “We failed to read the pro­found chal­lenges that had taken place in the coun­try dur­ing the 10 years” (when the party had been in power).

Ques­tions are asked within the Congress about how Rahul, the party's youth icon and vice pres­i­dent, led the cam­paign. Rahul Gandhi started his na­tional cam­paign quite late, almost four months after Modi had set into the role. Modi ex­ploited the peo­ple's dis­con­tent and anger over price rises, un­em­ploy­ment and cor­rup­tion. Rahul had noth­ing to counter th­ese charges ef­fec­tively.

More­over, Rahul had lit­tle to show for achieve­ment in gov­er­nance as he had not taken any po­si­tion in the gov­ern­ment de­spite re­peated re­quests by the party. Modi, on the other hand, had solid cre­den­tials and built his cam­paign around the Gu­jarat model of de­vel­op­ment that he had led as the state's chief min­is­ter for four­teen con­sec­u­tive years since 2001. In fact, he had been chief min­is­ter for far longer (14 years) than Rahul has been in pol­i­tics (10 years).

Rahul Gandhi ad­dressed over 160 ral­lies dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. By con­trast, Modi – about 20 years se­nior – ad­dressed three times that num­ber. Older Modi also made the fullest use of the lat­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion gad­gets like Twit­ter to reach out to a wider mass of peo­ple, while younger Rahul stuck to the old, prim­i­tive meth­ods of mass con­tact.

Among the rea­sons of­fered by an­a­lysts for the Congress’ de­ba­cle one was Sonia Gandhi's decision to take a back­seat in this elec­tion in fa­vor of her son. It did im­mense dam­age to the party. Even at her age, she is said to be far more en­er­getic and has greater or­ga­ni­za­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties than Rahul.

Another rea­son was the fail­ure of Brand Rahul as he did not dis­play the req­ui­site qual­i­ties needed to lead the party or con­nect with the elec­torate. Even after 10 years in pol­i­tics, his com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills re­main poor.

Three, the Congress ran a flawed elec­tion cam­paign. The BJP's sim­ple slo­gan 'Ab ki Baar, Modi Sarkar' got home im­me­di­ately with the pub­lic. In con­trast, the Congress’ mes­sage 'Har haath shakti, Har haath tarakki' was too heavy to make an im­pact.

The weak state lead­er­ship also con­trib­uted to the Congress party's de­feat, be­cause its lo­cal lead­ers en­joy lit­tle or no au­ton­omy. A Congress chief min­is­ter, for in­stance, can­not make any changes in his cab­i­net be­fore prior clear­ance from the party lead­er­ship in Delhi. In con­trast, in the BJP, lo­cal lead­ers have full au­ton­omy in the states and have, there­fore, per­formed much bet­ter.

The in­cum­bency fac­tor also mat­tered. The Congress-led UPA gov­ern­ment had been in power for ten long years. Tired of see­ing the old team, peo­ple wanted to see new faces.

And fi­nally, as a coup de grace, the Congress was dogged by un­prece­dented cor­rup­tion scan­dals, in­clud­ing the auc­tion of the 3G spec­trum and the Com­mon­wealth Games.

Yet, as hope springs in the hu­man breast, one party loy­al­ist ob­served, "Peo­ple have writ­ten our obituary be­fore. In five years they will be dis­il­lu­sioned by Mr. Modi and will come back to us."

As work­ers pon­der over how to re­sus­ci­tate the party, var­i­ous sce­nar­ios are be­ing ex­am­ined. One of them, which is fa­vored by the younger group of party of­fi­cials, is to bring in Rahul's sis­ter, Priyanka into the field. Ac­cord­ing to an an­a­lyst, "Ninety-nine per­cent of the Congress mem­bers be­lieve that she is the an­swer. She is touted as the Brah­mas­tra – the ul­ti­mate weapon."

She is the very im­age of her grand­mother – charis­matic and able to pull crowds be­cause peo­ple iden­tify with her. This was ap­par­ent from the few ap­pear­ances she made in the cam­paign trail.

Though her real-es­tate czar hus­band Robert Vadra draws flak for (un­sub­stan­ti­ated) al­le­ga­tions of shady land deals, all this is part of the game and it does not rub on Priyanka's rep­u­ta­tion.

But Priyanka is care­ful. She is de­ter­mined to avoid a fam­ily feud in case her brother is side­lined to make place for her. If this is to hap­pen, it must hap­pen peace­fully, with Rahul vol­un­tar­ily ab­di­cat­ing in her fa­vor.

That is why she re­cently is­sued a state­ment to squash the ru­mors: “The con­stant con­jec­ture about my as­sum­ing var­i­ous posts in the Congress and the man­ner in which this is­sue is brought up at op­por­tune mo­ments is in­cor­rect. I would be very grate­ful to all con­cerned if they de­sisted from en­cour­ag­ing such base­less ru­mors.”

How­ever, the next elec­tions are far away. There is a long way to go. Five years is am­ple time for the Congress to get back into full gear. Wait­ing for Modi to com­mit mis­takes to build on them will not do. The party will have to demon­strate its ca­pa­bil­ity to lead and pro­vide an­swers to popular as­pi­ra­tions.

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