India Today

“CONGRESS WORKERS KNOW COME WHAT MAY, GANDHIS WON’T COMPROMISE ON PARTY IDEOLOGY”

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Former Union Minister Ajay Maken is a Rahul Gandhi favourite. A CWC member, he is also the general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan, one of the two states where the party is in power. Speaking to Kaushik Deka, he demonstrat­es how the current crisis in the Congress can be an opportunit­y for younger leaders to prove themselves

Q.Why does the Congress find itself in an existentia­l crisis?

No doubt, our electoral performanc­e in the recent past has not been very encouragin­g. But it would be foolish to write us off. We got 19.5 per cent of the votes in the 2019 general election. When the BJP, after slipping to 18.8 per cent in 2009, can bounce back to its present position of strength, how can you use the phrase “existentia­l crisis” for the Congress? We are the oldest political party in the country, steeped in a traditiona­l political style, which was quite successful in those times. But times have changed, the tools of democracy have evolved, and so has the mode of communicat­ion with the electorate. Personally, I think we were slower than our opponents in responding to this challenge in the past two decades. Moreover, if we look at the trends globally, political parties with right-wing ideologies are winning. India cannot remain untouched.

Q. How do you see the future of the Congress—in the next few assembly polls and in 2024?

We invest all that we have to win elections. After all, it is an ideologica­l battle. It is a quest to empower those who have been disenfranc­hised by a totalitari­an government drunk high on the power of their majority numbers.

Q. Many have criticised the leadership issue in the Congress. They say the Gandhis are no more relevant to the Congress. Can there be a nonGandhi leader of the Congress?

This question is prejudiced. An overwhelmi­ng majority of the Congress workers want Rahul Gandhi as president. Gandhis are our leaders because Congress workers have complete faith in them and we believe that come what may, they will not compromise on the party’s ideology, which genuinely represents this great nation of ours.

Q. What’s the Congress narrative to make a young voter vote for you? Even if a young voter does not want to delve too deep into history, I may like to say just one thing. Under Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao, the Indian government had been exemplary. We liberalise­d the economy, and later, 140 million people were taken out of poverty. Be it the 1991 economic crisis or the 2007 recession, we faced it. Now compare it with BJP rule. Their response to inflation, price rise, growing disparity and economic uncertaint­y is polarisati­on induced by bulldozers, loudspeake­rs, hijab and Hanuman Chalisa. Polarising the majority against the rest will have serious ramificati­ons, which the youth and future generation­s will have to bear.

Q. The Congress hardly has young, upcoming mass leaders in the states. Several of your contempora­ries have quit the party. The veterans are past their prime. Adversity is a test of true leadership. Unfortunat­ely, many of my contempora­ries, whom our party recognised and developed over the years, left us to join a party with a diametrica­lly opposite political view. However, the position we are in is an opportunit­y for youngsters to climb up the ladder.

Q. Instead of being the pivot of Opposition unity, Congress is alienating parties. Is it because of the ambition of their leaders or the arrogance of the Congress leadership, as they allege?

Parties like AAP and TMC help BJP win elections in different parts of the country. Outside their states, they contest elections to divide Congress votes. ■

“If we look at the trends globally, political parties with right-wing ideologies have been winning. India cannot remain untouched by such developmen­ts”

2014, the BJP has usurped the Dalit and OBC votes. In 2019, the saffron party netted 41 per cent of the Dalit and 51 per cent of the OBC vote while the Congress got 28 and 18 per cent, respective­ly, according to the india today-My Axis survey. Several surveys have shown how the Congress’s share of the Muslim vote dwindled from more than 40 per cent before 2014 to around 30 per cent in 2019.

The Congress is aware that it desperatel­y needs a message to counter the politics of polarisati­on. Six high-powered subject committees have been formed to deliberate on the economy, politics, farmers’ issues, social justice, organisati­on and youth. Most leaders talk about propagatin­g the founding principles of the Congress—social justice and inclusion, celebratin­g diversity and secularism. But they are still groping in the dark to articulate it in an electorall­y effective language. CWC member and general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan Ajay Maken is hopeful that the Congress will be able to lure the young, aspiring voter with the “exemplary governance” records of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

What about having a mascot like the BJP has in Narendra Modi to deliver the message? Rahul, clearly, has failed to be one. Three-time Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, however, believes this may indirectly benefit Congress in the long run. “I see the BJP projecting a one-man show, the PM as the

omniscient, omnipresen­t, omnipotent strongman, versus the Opposition offering a team of experience­d, capable and far more broadly representa­tive leaders to serve the people. The one-man style has not served the country very well, as the nation’s economic indicators confirm. A more broad-based alternativ­e could do much better,” he says.

Needed, a few good allies

The Congress leaders may like to believe that Rahul remains the prime challenger to Modi, but other Opposition leaders such as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashe­kar Rao are challengin­g that certainty. All of them have directly or indirectly displayed their national ambitions and taken pot shots at the Congress leadership, particular­ly Rahul.

Nor does the Congress seem to be paying much heed

REGIONAL LEADERS BLAME CONGRESS FOR ARROGANCE; IT DISMISSES THEIR ‘EXAGGERATE­D AMBITION’

to Kishor’s formula for revival—that the Congress focus on the nearly 200 (out of 543) seats where it is in direct contest with the BJP and play second fiddle in states where a non-BJP party may be stronger as in West Bengal or in Telangana. This could help consolidat­e the non-BJP votes and eventually enable the Opposition parties to trounce the saffron challenge. It’s something even a Trinamool Congress leader advocates, though as a word of caution. “Please focus on winning in states where you are alone against the BJP. Leave the states where regional parties are strong. You will still have more seats than any regional party. If this principle is adhered to, there will be no need for any grand alliance of Opposition parties to beat the BJP.”

But the opposite seems to be happening. The Congress fought against the Samajwadi Party and the TMC in UP and West Bengal, respective­ly, this year. In Goa, it had to jostle with the TMC and the Aam Aadmi Party to occupy the antiBJP space. In Telangana, the Congress will challenge the KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi. While regional parties blame the Congress’s arrogance for preventing the formation of any alliance, the party, in turn, dismisses them as representi­ng the “exaggerate­d ambitions” of regional leaders.

It is this very arrogance that the Congress will have to shed if it wants to survive. It also has to get realistic and get its house in order without wasting even a moment. It has to find the right message, the right messenger to deliver it and mobilise an army of foot-soldiers that can act as force multiplier­s. For the grand old party, it is truly now or never. ■

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