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Congress: From Here to Where?

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Devoid of ideas and dismissive of its own legacy, the Congress, its social base fast eroding, faces its biggest leadership crisis

On 4 June 2013, at a meeting of Dalit entrepreneurs held in Mumbai’s iconic waterfront hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace, then Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram was deeply impressed by a suggestion that came up: that banks should be asked to finance startups by Dalits. The participants at the convention, dressed in their best suits, were all Dalits, and they had strong convictions about what the community wanted. They no longer wanted “pigs, dogs, the lard and the leftovers” usually served to former ‘untouchables’ by upper castes, one of them thundered. Instead, they wanted equality of opportunity and incentives to start businesses. The function was a departure of sorts on several counts. It was organised by the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DICCI), a business lobby that promotes entrepreneurs from the lowest rungs of India’s caste hierarchy. It had under one roof the collective aspirations of the country’s former outcastes in an entirely new avatar, driven by a passion to break free from centuries of social subjugation and marginalisation—by the dint of hard work, of course, not by entitlement.

The idea of sounding out banks for help had fascinated Chidambaram, but it required someone who possessed greater political skills and mastery of spin to appropriate the new Dalit cause of empowering the community through innovative entrepreneur-oriented programmes. “The message at the Mumbai meeting was clear. The participants thought that the quota system wasn’t working for many of the aspiring Dalits. What they needed were incentives to strike it rich,” remembers a senior Congress functionary who had attended the function.

What Chidambaram failed to capitalise on then became a golden opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years later. It came in handy when he had to brandish his social development agenda in his speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August this year. “In fact, the Congress could have made a similar announcement when Dalit millionaires had approached them with their suggestions. But the reality is that it was Modi who gets the credit for announcing an idea that had been floating around for a while,” adds the Congress functionary.

Scoring political brownie points by lapping up ideas that endear him to new constituents has come naturally to Modi, much to the anguish of the Congress party, which had multiple vote banks under its wing for decades. But then, the times are fast changing. In the 2014 General Election, in which the Congress was rattled by anti-incumbency and poor leadership, Modi hard-sold the idea of a strong leader to the masses; in place of an ambivalent Centre, he offered a decisive and stable one—slogans that were once of the Congress. In the game of perceptions, he not only won hands down but also exposed the sad state of affairs in the Congress party whose new leadership, spearheaded by vice-president and Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, continues to stick to old-fashioned ideas that undermine economic reforms, which is a rich legacy of India’s Grand Old Party. “It is an irony that it was the Congress that drafted the reforms process in India. Unfortunately, it has lost ownership of all such initiatives taken by the likes of the late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh thanks to new posturing by its younger leadership,” notes a former Congress minister who does not wish to be identified.

Modi, who pulled in the votes of Dalits—once traditional supporters of the Congress—in the last General Election, winning the bulk of seats allocated for Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the country, is now coining new slogans to cement his party’s ties with the community. Interestingly, in the polls of 2014, the BJP fielded 17 Scheduled Caste candidates in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to Parliament, and all of them won. The Congress, on the other hand, offered tickets to 19 such candidates, but suffered a resounding defeat. In neighbouring Bihar, all the SC candidates of the BJP-led coalition won the polls. “The phase of winning Dalits over by offering ration cards, goats and subsidies has ceased to work. If you empower them in this way [by offering incentives for business], it will have an electrifying impact in a ‘caste India’,” points out Dalit public intellectual and author Chandra Bhan Prasad, alluding to the Congress failure to evolve new tactics to retain its traditional vote banks in the face of clever campaigns by the BJP promising to help Dalits join the country’s growth bandwagon.

Which is why it made political sense for the Prime Minister to jump at the idea when DICCI Chairman Milind Kamble made the same suggestion he had made earlier in the presence of Chidambaram, and this time, at the Ambedkar Day celebrations held a few weeks earlier. The DICCI, for its part, is working towards grooming at least 100 Dalits who could become rupee billionaires over the next few years.

Besides Dalits, the Congress has been losing its grip over other constituents as well, most notably Muslims. The community had voted en bloc for the party for decades, but has been voting differently in the past two decades with other political parties emerging as claimants of their vote in some of India’s most populous states. Much more than ever, the Congress is ceding its vote base among minorities to rival parties, resulting in it becoming a mere second or third alternative among non-BJP contenders. Trends gleaned from the 2014 General Election results show that Muslims veered away from the Congress to vote—among others—for the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP, and Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar.

Of course, those parties had managed to secure a good chunk of Muslim votes in the past as well. However, the Maharashtra Assembly polls, held a few months after the national election, showed that there are more players in the fray. The electoral success, though marginal, of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, which won two seats in the state, was a confirmation of new political realities. The AIMIM weaned away a section of Muslim and Dalit voters in Maharashtra to win in the Aurangabad Central and Byculla seats. In next year’s state elections in UP, the party could dent the SP’s vote bank by dividing Muslim voters. It could affect the Congress badly, too. The AIMIM is looking to contest more than 100 seats in UP next year, as Owaisi had said. In Bihar’s forthcoming polls, its presence could play spoiler for the alliance led by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, in which the Congress is a junior partner. The coalition is worried that the AIMIM will eat into their vote base in the Seemanchal region of Kishanganj, Purnia, Katihar and Araria. In effect, the rise of radical Muslim parties like AIMIM will make the Congress a much weaker electoral choice for Muslims. “Muslims in Bihar may vote for Nitish or Lalu, but the Congress is not exactly a choice for them. With the party weakening rapidly, it is increasingly disappearing as a party of choice among a large section of Muslims in India. The rise of parties like AIMIM will further alienate Muslims from the party, which is not seen as an alternative for the BJP in many parts of the country except in states like Kerala,” rues a senior Congress leader from the southern state.

Modi’s symbolic gestures might even prompt Muslims to vote for the BJP in some parts of Bihar, claims BJP leader and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, referring to the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE, the first by an India premier to the Arab world since 1981. Modi received a stunning welcome in the Emirates. The Prime Minister was welcomed at Abu Dhabi’s VIP airport by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, along with his five brothers. The Crown Prince reportedly bypassed the official protocol whereby a visiting dignitary is only welcomed by the Foreign Ministry head Sheikh Abdullah, who is the Crown Prince’s brother. The UAE has also extended its support to India’s candidacy for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, as the two countries called for reforms of the UN’s constitution. Modi later spoke to almost 50,000 Indian expatriates at a grand public reception named ‘Marhaba (welcome) NaMo’. He also visited the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Though such gestures are unlikely to help his party secure votes in India, pundits believe it was more than mere tokenism, signalling Modi’s desire to alter perceptions about him—he had once refused to wear a skullcap, arguing that Mahatma Gandhi never wore one. “Modi’s visit to the Grand Mosque is a clear signal that he wishes to bury his own communalist baggage and build on India’s pluralistic reputation and highlight Islam’s role in Indian history,” Kadira Pethiyagoda, visiting fellow in Asia-Middle East Relations Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters. “What is crucial is that he is reinventing himself through propaganda, and that is what my party is not able to do,” admits the former Congress Union minister.

While Modi and team campaign effectively with an eye on the younger generation, the Congress, now steered largely by Rahul Gandhi, is still preoccupied with an anti-development tirade which doesn’t seem to have any takers even among farmers who are keen that the next generation pursues jobs in the services sector. His efforts to become the principal voice of the downtrodden have not struck a chord. Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta has described the demeanour of Rahul Gandhi, who has been bent upon creating a ruckus in Parliament, as ‘capable of encouraging staccato hooliganism’. Clearly, Rahul Gandhi has taken his pro-poor campaign to laughable levels. At a recent meeting in Amethi, he followed up on his ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ (government run for rich men in suits) jibe, saying what people at large really want is a “shirt ki sarkar, kurta-pyjame ki sarkar, chappalon ki sarkar” (a government run for the common man who wears shirts, kurta-pyjamas and chappals).

Atul Kohli, David KE Bruce Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, feels that the recent decline of the Congress has to do with poor leadership that has failed to take advantage of opportunities. He was surprised that during the recent controversies that put the Modi Government on the defensive—following charges that his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj helped fugitive businessman Lalit Modi obtain travel documents from the British government—the Congress was unable to highlight such failures of the Government to check indiscretions by people holding offices of power. To be fair, Swaraj did face sharp attack from the opposition Congress; it also disrupted Parliamentary proceedings and vowed to disallow any debate in the House until she stepped down. But, finally, when a debate did take place, Swaraj tore into the Congress, accusing Rahul’s father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and mother of being corrupt. Not only was Rahul Gandhi’s defence feeble, the House also saw a member mentioning Sonia Gandhi’s sister’s name in the context of corruption. Though the reference was expunged from the debate, the incident marked a departure from the practice of not attacking the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for corruption—which prompted Sonia Gandhi to storm into the well of the House and incur criticism for imprudence. Ironically, while she was in the opposition, it was Swaraj herself who within the BJP had opposed the idea of raising the issue of alleged corrupt deals of Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra in Parliament, citing the impropriety of dragging the names of relatives of top politicians into House debates.

While Kohli feels that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership performance has not been impressive, he can’t put a finger on the reasons. “Whether this is due to a lack of interest in politics, or lack of political skills, or being hemmed in by competing forces at the apex is hard for me to tell.” London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose, though, has no doubt about why the young Gandhi has not clicked in politics. Says he: “I’m completely unconvinced by the argument that he has emerged in a new avatar following his mysterious sabbatical. To me, he seems as insecure and inept as ever. Huffing and puffing and showing up here and there does not equal leadership. He just doesn’t have what it takes to be a leader, and is a waste of space.” He adds, “It is unfortunate—more for him than anyone else—that his mother is seemingly incapable of reconciling herself to this reality, which every rational person realises. Even without the dynasty, the Congress is so damaged that its future is bleak. But with the dynasty, it’s very bleak.”

Like many political analysts Open spoke to, Bose is of the view that the Congress strategy in Parliament smacks of desperation. First, though it could be seen as tit-for-tat for what the BJP did in the last years of UPA rule, the Congress wasn’t equipped to handle the strategy well, attracting criticism from Indian industry and several other opposition parties for not letting Parliament function. The party also opposed the passage of its own Goods and Services Tax Bill. While its opposition to the amended Land Acquisition Bill had some logic, its stance on the GST Bill is strange, several Congress leaders admit.

Notes Bose: “I think the Congress’ strategy of immobilising Parliament exposes its weakness and desperation. This party—or rather its tattered remnants—has been reduced to some pockets of influence in the vast country it once bestrode like a colossus.” He goes on, “A true strategy of revival would necessitate rebuilding the party base and organisation across India, especially in key populous states. The chances of that are effectively zero. The party has withered away across the country and it’s far too late now for even divine intervention to make a difference. Simply put, Indian society and politics has moved on.”

The Congress is out of depth in handling crises also because Rahul Gandhi has scant respect for institutional memory, several insiders say, asking not to be named. Some of them are upset that Rahul Gandhi relies largely on a handful of what they call ‘paratroopers’ such as Mohan Gopal, Madhusudan Mistry and Ajay Maken for political advice. Following the party’s unprecedented drubbing in 2014, author and Congress watcher Rasheed Kidwai had famously noted that the two power bases that existed within it—an old guard of senior national and state leaders ranged behind Sonia Gandhi and a team of largely apolitical experts behind Rahul—had worked at cross-purposes. “Sane voices have no say now,” says a senior Congress leader, emphasising that defusing crises and rallying support can’t be done by “neophytes”. “And that explains the problem with the current leadership [of the Congress],” he insists.

The fissures between Sonia loyalists and those around Rahul are only getting wider, thanks to their contrasting styles of functioning. Ahmed Patel, Sonia’s ‘man for all seasons’, used to be busy round the clock even when the Congress was in the opposition prior to 2004, receiving guests and holding parleys with leaders of other political parties to secure their backing at crucial junctures. Under Sonia Gandhi, there was also a clearer demarcation of work. While Patel handled the organisation, the National Advisory Council helped her frame policies. There were astute troubleshooters in the UPA Government as well. “Though the Government was led by Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram were excellent at handling government-related issues,” recalls a senior Congress leader. The old guard is either uninterested now or kept at bay by Team Rahul, he adds. Even when Rajiv Gandhi brought in a new team of advisors and experts to guide him after the party’s emphatic win in the 1984 General Election and when Indira Gandhi took on the might of the ‘Syndicate’ in the late 1960s, she had retained several leaders of the old guard to steer clear of organisational crises. “The absence of any such practice has rendered the Congress too ineffective to take on a master of spin like Modi. The current leadership is no match for him,” says a Bhopal-based Congress leader.

Worse, the Congress is a shadow of what it used to be just a few years ago. It has been battered in the populous states of north India and even in Tribal pockets. In Kerala, where it is in power, it is faction-ridden and corrupt; in Tamil Nadu, too, it is organisationally far weaker than ever. “The news is really bad from states like Punjab, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, UP, Jammu & Kashmir and so on,” notes a Delhi-based Congress leader who doesn’t wish to be identified. Despite allegations of corruption against BJP leaders at the Centre and states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has neither been able to translate any of it into an effective campaign nor manage support from other opposition parties to take on the Government. Efforts to warm up to parties like Trinamool Congress have proved futile. While Parliament was in session this month, Sonia Gandhi walked up to the Central Hall to greet Mamata Banerjee; after exchanging pleasantries, she went back to the House and returned along with Rahul, Jyotiraditya Scindia and a few others. When Scindia announced to Banerjee that “Rahulji is here”, she didn’t even turn her face to look at the young Gandhi scion. “Such humiliations have become usual. These are very bad times,” says the Delhi Congress leader, noting that the influence of feeder organisations such as the Mahila Congress, INTUC and NSUI are on a rapid decline. “We are not even respected for what we have done in the past because we are today talking against them. We are alienating a large section of people who are direct or indirect beneficiaries of Liberalisation and also aspiring Indians. It is not that we shouldn’t talk of poverty, but we should not make aggressive anti-growth assertions. Growth is important to lift people out of poverty and their current social status,” he says.

With Rahul Gandhi rolling up his sleeves and abandoning the valued legacies of India’s grand old party that pioneered the country’s reforms and modernisation, anyone who talks of its revival has to take a leap of faith.