The Party Without a Plot

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Afflicted by an inert organisation, absent leadership and ideological confusion, Congress needs to forge a revival plan before it’s too late


For residents of Delhi, the morning of 28 December was bitterly cold, with the temperature dipping to 2.6° Celsius. The dense fog only made it harder for people to venture out. But there were some who braved the weather to join a celebration that seemed even colder in several ways. The venue was 24 Akbar Road and the occasion was the 130th foundation day of the Indian National Congress. Almost all of the party’s senior leaders who have made India’s capital their haunt were present at the customary flag hoisting ceremony, with the honours done by none other than Congress President Sonia Gandhi. There were claps and cheers. But the whispers were about the leader whose absence haunted the premises.

Where was Rahul Gandhi? Everyone appeared to be asking the other, some even saying he might have got late and would make an appearance later. No one seemed to have any clue of the party vice-president’s whereabouts. For a party that has all but lost its way, it was a chilly reminder of an aimless existence; the man supposed to take its leadership over from his mother did not seem to care much.

The leader who Congressmen have been counting on to restore the party’s relevance in politics remains an enigma to them. On occasion, Rahul Gandhiappears energetic and stirred up, such as the time he wrapped a black band around his mouth and joined other opposition leaders in protest against Union Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s remarks at a rally. He even complains of not being allowed to speak. But when the media approaches him for his views on matters of national importance, he goes silent; asked for a comment on the assembly poll results of Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand, for example, he ignored the question.

As Congress insiders reveal, Gandhi does meet party leaders and talk about their work, quizzing them on what they’re doing, but that’s about it. He rarely offers either guidance or information on the party’s strategy. Leaders from across the country come to meet him in the hope of gaining inspiration for the challenges ahead. However, “When you come out, you feel more confused. You come with lot of questions and all remain unanswered. I wonder what I would say to the grassroots worker of the party,” says a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh who met him recently.

Seven months have passed since the General Election that handed the BJP a Lok Sabha majority, and the party that lost power has done nothing significant apart from stalling legislation in the Rajya Sabha, where it still has the clout of numbers. “It seems that the party is in self-destruction mode,” says former union minister and senior Congress leader KC Deo. “What have we done to be a credible opposition? Nothing.”

The party has lost all four state assembly elections held since May last year. In Maharashtra and Haryana, where it was in power for more than one term, the party was relegated to third spot. In J&K and Jharkhand, where it had coalition governments, it has secured fourth and third position, respectively. In all four states, its overall performance has worsened since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. While Congress may have retained its 18 per cent vote share in Maharashtra, losing only a few decimals, its vote share in Haryana slipped from 23 per cent in the General Election to 20 per cent in the Assembly polls. Similarly in Jharkhand, it had got 13 per cent of the popular vote for Parliament, but got only 10.5 per cent for the Assembly. In J&K, its share fell from 23 per cent to 18 per cent over the six- month period.

At present there are as many as six states where the grand old party has less than or just about 10 per cent of the overall vote, and this includes such important states as UP, Bihar and West Bengal. While the party holds power in 10 states, these are mostly smaller ones such as Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The only big states under its rule are Karnataka, Kerala and Assam. “There is nothing unusual in this. It happens when you are out of power at the Centre,” says Digvijaya Singh, Congress general secretary and senior leader. “If you see post the 2004 and 2009 wins by the UPA at the Centre, even BJP lost several states to Congress.”

Yet, the inaction that has begun to encrust the party cannot be considered politics as usual. Congress workers were hoping for a change after the Antony Committee submitted its report last August on the reasons for the party’s debacle. “Even at this stage, the same people who were responsible for the worst-ever performances are calling the shots. How do you expect a turnaround?” asks Deo. Little has changed by way of operational structure. State presidents in Assam, Goa and Orissa have been changed, but this was on the cards even before the Lok Sabha election. Organisational polls are scheduled for September this year for party posts at the district, state and central levels. Earlier, Rahul Gandhi had led the internal reform effort, advocating open elections for each post to ensure inner- party democracy and transparency of processes. But this has been laid aside, it appears, since it would risk even deeper divisions in the party. “Consensus is also an election,” says Janardan Dwivedi, general secretary in-charge of organisation.

Some state leaders are asking for more autonomy, arguing that the party needs to strengthen regional leadership. “The party cannot be revived from top to bottom,” says senior party leader Ajit Jogi, “Strong regional leaders should be empowered in states and given a free hand. Once the states revive, [prospects at] the Centre will look positive.”

For a top-led Congress, that is a radical proposal and there is no clarity on what Rahul Gandhi makes of it. That his approval is necessary, though, remains as axiomatic as before. Despite the party’s pathetic performance, no direct challenge to his leadership has been mounted yet. His own post of party vice-president cannot be contested via the ballot since the party constitution has no such post and so no poll can be held for it.

However, party leaders want him to be the next Congress president. As Digvijaya Singh says, “I think he should take charge as the president in the near future to lead the party.” Dwivedi maintains his view that party posts need to have a retirement age, a hint that Rahul Gandhi ought to be the top leader. Even the leaders who have raised indirect questions over his leadership are merely arguing for a return to old form. “The party will get back its glory under Sonia Gandhi,” says Jogi.

The Congress also faces a crisis of ideology. Senior leaders like AK Antony have questioned the party’s attitudes that make it appear soft on minorities. Many within the party believe that it is losing its traditional Hindu voters because of its efforts to woo minority voters. This is worsened by the increasing alienation of Muslims, who tend to vote for other viable alternatives where possible.

Apart from that, the Congress has taken a U-turn on economic reforms, most of which were part of its own agenda. A broad leftward shift in the name of a welfare focus was evident even when the party was in power, but now in opposition it takes pride in blocking key moves in favour of the economy, such as the Insurance or Land Acquisition bills, on minor points of dispute.

The big question, of course, concerns the revival of the party’s electoral fortunes. This would mean regaining its lost appeal among voters. The signs so far are not good. Last August, the party began a five-month-long membership drive, but it achieved not even 5 per cent of its target. In UP, for example, the party distributed 5.3 million forms, but by December 2014, it had only 150,000 new members; of these, 75,000 were from Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi’s constituency. “Membership has been a bit slower and lower than what we expected,” admits UP Congress president Nirmal Khatri.

For Delhi’s upcoming Assembly election, the party’s chances appear dismal. Though it has released a list of 24 candidates for the polls, it has no presence on the ground. While the BJP and AAP have intensified their campaign, the Congress is yet to figure out a strategy and campaign theme. Shakeel Ahmed has been replaced as the party in-charge of Delhi by Kerala MP PC Chacko, but Delhi leaders wonder what difference it would make.

“To say that nothing is moving in Congress is untrue,”contends Digvijaya Singh. “The process of change has started with Rahulji meeting all senior leaders and asking us to file a report based on the opinions of party workers.” The first round of meetings with general secretaries has already taken place. Next up are meetings with state presidents. All have been asked to file reports by March. The party expects to call a session of the All India Congress Committee in April-May to discuss a revival blueprint. “We are working on it and will submit our suggestions based on discussions with party cadres as soon as possible,” says Ashok Tanwar, Haryana Congress president. “We always make a comeback from scratch.”

That the party will bounce back as a matter of course is a hope many cling to. For this, Congress leaders usually cite Indira Gandhi’s dramatic return to power in 1980 after the post-Emergency Janata experiment. But a lot has changed since then. In 1977, the Congress still won 153 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 34 per cent. Today, the party has only 44 seats, a shocker of a tally, its lowest ever, with its vote share below 20 per cent. In the late 70s, a wedge could be driven through the party’s opposition , a grouping of forces. Today, the BJP leads India with a decisive mandate under the undisputed leadership of Narendra Modi. Back then, it was the Congress which had a strong leader in Indira Gandhi. Today, it has Rahul Gandhi. “It’s foolish to look back at history and believe that things will change,” says Deo. Jogi still sounds optimistic, though. “At the moment, it seems difficult to gain the favour of the majority of India,” he says, “But it’s possible.”

One of the biggest advantages of hoping against hope is that it makes one feel better.