DIFFERENT States, different players, different playgrounds, different rules and yet the same result! It is time for the Congress leadership to sit back and dispassionately analyse as to what has brought it to this moribund state. Why is the party losing everywhere? Why has it failed to understand the needs and aspirations of the aam aadmi? Why has Rahul Gandhi failed as a leader? Why have Congress poll managers become so staid, stale, inefficient and incompetent in gauging the mood of the electorate? Where will it go from here and who will lead the party now in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls?
Whatever logic and explanation may be given by Congress leaders oncamera, yet the fact remains that nothing has worked for the Congress in the last four years. Be it Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Goa or the five states that recently went to polls—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram—nothing has worked for the Congress. If this could be hailed as the semi-final, then there is a clear indication that the Congress would struggle to even get into three digits in the forthcoming general election and will have a tough time in getting a two-digit tally in the Hindi heartland States.
Rahul no gamechanger
The biggest disappointment is the failure of Rahul Gandhi as a weapon which the Congress hoped to use as a gamechanger. In a private conversation, a very senior Congress leader said that “the Congress party can keep foisting Rahul on the electorate and we can never dare oppose him because he is the scion of the party’s first family. But it is clear that people are not prepared to accept him in the current avatar. The sooner our party accepts this, the faster it can start re-building itself”.
“Rahul Gandhi lacks the fluency and charisma that mark a politician who can excite or charm an audience. His mannered behaviour, his stiff body language and his inability to speak Hindi in a fashion that the audience can relate to, has clearly put paid to any expectation of mass support,” says a political commentator.
Rahul’s close confidants have been using the term ‘gamechanger’ to demonstrate that his ideas and ideals are different from the present dispensation. The results of this round of assembly polls have once again proved that he did prove to be a gamechanger. Instead of mobilising the electorate and translating them into votes, Rahul’s “poori roti khayenge, Congress ko jitayenge (borrowed from Indira Gandhi’s election manifesto) in fact, boomeranged on him and his party. Now, the party think-tank will be forced to either abandon the term ‘gamechanger’, or will have to look for fresh ideas and a better plan and projects to reclaim the term.
Congress party insiders admit that, “as heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, there were but two possible reasons for the party to look to Rahul Gandhi. One was their belief in the possibility of Rahul Gandhi’s ability to enthuse voters on the basis of his pedigree, while the other was that he may be able to revitalise a decaying party organisation through his more scientific plans and preparations”.
But a look at the rallies of Rahul clearly indicates that he is not a man who has a natural connect with crowds. “He lacks the fluency and charisma that mark a politician who can excite or charm an audience. His mannered behaviour, his stiff body language and his inability to speak Hindi in a fashion that the audience can relate to, has clearly put paid to any expectation of mass support,” says a veteran political commentator.
On many occasions, Rahul has proved to be an enigma and surprised both his friends and foes alike with his quips and quotes on some important issues. It is here that his failure is most evident and provides the clearest evidence that it may be best for the party to look beyond him.
More than that, however, it is the systematic organisational failure and decay within the Congress which appears to have landed it in such a state. Many people would have to take the collective blame for this. Says another political analyst, “The fall of Rahul Gandhi as a leader is not the only problem with the Congress party. Manmohanomics and Sonianomics too have to take an equal share of blame for the present mess.”
There is a lot of truth in this statement. First, take a look at a few statements made by Rahul in recent times. Rahul’s gaffe about intelligence agencies briefing him about plots by terror outfits to lure Muslim victims of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, raised a lot of hue and cry. Apart from the stigma that the victims could do without, questions were raised about Rahul’s claim that intelligence agencies were briefing him when they had no business doing so; neither is he the Union Home Minister nor the Prime Minister. A national newspaper also published a report alleging that there had been largescale misuse of intelligence agencies to screen possible Congress candidates at the behest of Rahul and his team.
Second, Rahul kept reminding voters in his speeches that the Land Acquisition Bill was his idea and that he had personally toiled on foot from Bhatta Parsaul to Noida in Uttar Pradesh to understand the related issues and then pushed the UPA to adopt this idea as law. He wanted the compensation of the required land to be raised to four times that of the market value in rural areas and twice the market value in urban areas.
But his think-tank members perhaps failed to make him understand that the landed gentry was wellentrenched in the political game and knew how to use the Bill in their best interests. The business community and industry were already opposed to it as it would inflate costs and make the acquiring process so cumbersome that no new ventures would be practically possible. Even Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Congress workers remained blissfully oblivious to it and the net result was a dud!
Third, Rahul tried to woo the voters in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan through tear-jerker narration of his mother’s illness and regret of not carrying her resolve to press the button during voting in Parliament for the Food Security Bill. He tried to connect to the sympathetic and emotional chord of the people by narrating how assassination of his grandmother and father impacted his life. Even his belligerent ‘tear and throw the nonsense ordinance’ approved by his own party government failed to impress the voters.
Rahul Gandhi not only needs to learn from the past but also has to change his persona and style of functioning in the best interests of the party. He would have to make a fine balance by synthesising the traditional strongpoint of the Congress party along with a modern and realistic outlook and a scientific way of analysing the present trends and work for a better future.
Dichotomy between words and deeds
Rahul has always said that he wanted to usher in more democratisation in the party and was a votary of giving way to younger faces in elections. But the end result of all such exercises have been confusing and, at times, contradictory to his statements. For these assembly elections, the process of selection of candidates has been entirely the work of Rahul and his team, with the Central Election Committee (CEC) headed by Sonia Gandhi just working to endorse the selection. A report in a newspaper quoted a CEC member as saying: “At CEC meetings, names are taken and cleared almost like a ritual as we know Rahulji and his team have done the background check through independent surveys, intelligence agencies and various other sources. Madam (Sonia) does not intervene anymore and watches the proceedings silently.”
A few members of Team Rahul also suggested that he has always favoured credible young faces. Yet the biggest howler was the Congress’ decision to give a ticket to 80-year-old Ameri Devi, the mother of Malkhan Singh Bishnoi, the main accused in the Bhanwari Devi abduction and gangrape case in Rajasthan. In terms of party reorganisation, Rahul seems to have relied heavily on people, who, like him, have inherited the privileges of power. In Rajasthan, for example, both Sachin Pilot and Jitendra Singh were made co-chairmen of the poll campaign committee. “This multiplication of imitations of Rahul across the party has virtually ensured that there are no grassroot leaders of any importance emerging from within the party structure. At the very least, the result of Rahul’s intervention should have been the selection of candidates who represented the new and progressive face of the party,” said a senior editor of a prominent Hindi daily from Jaipur.
They may not voice it in public, but a section of Congressmen has started saying that if the ability to win a seat is to override all constraints of public morality, then isn’t much of the posturing being done by Rahul just hypocrisy? If a small coterie of people, with no direct experience of how politics actually plays out on the ground in this country, can rely on survey agencies and, far more problematically, on intelligence agencies, to select candidates, what was Rahul doing over the past few years, trying to build the party from the grassroots? A few questions are also being raised on Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s brand of politics, termed ‘Sonianomics’. This section of the party describes her as the super government and her post of Chairperson of the National Advisory Council as a super constitutional position. Steps like the Food Security Bill and the Direct Cash Transfer schemes have been attributed to her and yet the voters gave a decisive mandate to the BJP in the recent assembly polls. The Rajasthan debacle was a clear pointer that distribution of freebees and doles in the election year do not help.
The Congress has nobody but itself to blame for attempting to run a national party with the charisma of a single family. That, too, for the most part of its existence. If old family-held enterprises can fail because they failed to move with the times, why can’t a family-held party?
A few political commentators following the Congress beat for years admit, “The first family never had much live contact with the rank and file, but it always had a feel of the people’s pulse and supporters had an unflinching faith. That has suffered a serious dent. The demoralisation in Congress ranks following a total rout in four north Indian States is slowly turning into deep disenchantment, even anger, against the person who they until recently worshipped as their unquestioned leader with a divine right to rule.”
In their opinion, a leader’s aura comes with his ability to foresee an emerging situation, mould his action, gear up the organisation to meet the challenges and establish a connect with the people and be the vote catcher for the party. Rahul’s failing to deliver on those counts has diminished his authority. Ironically, it is not just the old guard that is angry with Rahul’s unpredictable statements but even the younger leaders, both sung and unsung, are deeply critical of him and the mismatch between his reaching and his practice. With the Rahul Gandhi card being ineffective, the Congress leadership appears to have plunged into a crisis of credibility.
Rahul, in all his recent election campaign speeches, spoke about the aam aadmi and the steps taken by the UPA for their upliftment. But, he miserably failed to get his point across. While all governments, particularly the BJP-led ones, have been as populist as the Congress at the Centre, what with several welfare schemes, it’s the latter that is being panned for trying to buy votes through schemes. Some experts feel that Rahul and his team should have been ready with a blueprint about his vision of India. He became the vice-president of the party in January and 11 months were good enough for his team of advisers to draft his vision and his mission.
While BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has made a lot of noise on his inclusive development model, neither Rahul nor the UPA have come out with a coherent view on an inclusive economy yet. It may be so because Rahul’s team of advisers has not yet been able to understand the reality of politics at the grassroots and are still torn between copying the American quick-fix for Indian maladies.
The failure of Rahul Gandhi as a leader is not the only problem with the Congress party, Manmohanomics and Sonianomics too have to take an equal share of blame for the present mess.
Moreover, his advisers like Madhusudan Mistry and Jairam Ramesh have been giving him prescriptions which are not in sync with the reality. While Mistry’s diagnosis of the party’s shrinking base in various States has been bizarre, Ramesh’s remark that “Modi on Lokpal is like Asaram talking on virginity” has only made the discourse frivolous.
With regard to the Modi versus Rahul debate, the experience of taking responsibility is an important issue. So far, Rahul has avoided any ministerial responsibility, while Modi has a proven track record of governing a State well. “How can the Congress expect voters to accept Rahul for the top job easily? Surely, it has not stopped taking people for granted, or it has no other option left. If it has to survive, it has to sink or swim with him. This was the predicament with the BJP sometime ago and they found their solution in Modi,” wrote a veteran commentator a few days ago.
The Congress party think-tank, on the other hand, appears to be convinced that it is a case of better late than never and that is how they want to present Rahul—on the basis of the good work done by the UPA II government in many areas which have not been given due publicity.
Congress losing allies
The DMK’s decision to dump the Congress in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls is another piece of evidence that power—or even the prospect of power—is the key to alliances. While this does not mean M Karunanidhi is about to seek an entry into the NDA under Modi, the smell of defeat that hangs around the Congress is certainly driving away allies, giving the BJP hope for 2014. On the other hand, AIADMK chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa is also not ready to align with anybody. She has already made it clear that her party won’t have any alliance with the BJP ahead of the polls. That means, for the first time in decades, Tamil Nadu is likely to witness a solo performance during the next Lok Sabha elections by all major political parties in the State. The Nationalist Congress Party, led by Maratha chieftain Sharad Pawar, has also started making contrarian noises. Not only is the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra tottering, Pawar’s statement on Rahul’s capability as well as his jholawala brigade of advisers has raised eyebrows in the Congress camp. According to a senior Congress leader, “Sharad Pawar is like a cat on the wall and his support cannot be taken for granted now.”
The biggest challenge before the Congress will be, how to manage the numbers? The fact that the Congress is ruling in 11 States today may look promising on paper, but all these States together account for only about 180 Lok Sabha seats, of which the Congress holds less than 100. In the last general election, the Congress and its allies had done well in these States and managed more than half of the seats. It is doubtful if the Congress will reap the same kind of harvest in 2014.
The Congress faces serious trouble in Andhra Pradesh, where it had won 33 out of the 42 seats last time. With its own Chief Minister, Kiran Reddy, preparing the ground for an exit from the party over bifurcation of the State and YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy and TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu looking more amenable to aligning with the Modiled BJP, the party seems to have shot itself in the foot with Telangana.
The situation is equally miserable in Maharashtra, where the CongressNCP alliance won 25 out of 48 seats last time. With the Adarsh housing and irrigation scams, law and order failures and no extraordinary governance to show, the Prithviraj Chavan government will certainly face the disadvantage of incumbency. Add to this the nuisance of a wily NCP supremo, who can embarrass the Congress and walk out of the alliance at the last moment. In that case, the Congress would not be in a position to take its tally to double digits.
In Haryana, the Congress had managed nine out of 10 seats on the basis of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s popularity and deft management. But then, there were no Robert Vadra land deals or Ashok Khemka inside stories. Additionally, if the AAP expands contiguously to the State, the Congress’s goose is likely to be cooked.
Similarly, in Assam, the Congress won seven out of 14 seats. Will Tarun Gogoi deliver again remains a big question. In the wake of the recent rape outrage and charges of mis-governance, he looks like a defeated man. In Kerala, the party and the disarray, thanks to never ending scams— including its regular share of sex scandals—and internal fights. Unless the electorate is put off by the violent and opportunistic ways of the CPI(M), Oomen Chandy may not be of any major help. In Karnataka, which has 28 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress tally is nine and its government is in power. But Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah’s image has already started to take a beating, thanks to vociferous cries by senior Congressmen about all ex-Janata Dal men getting plum posts and say in governance.
There are nine States—Madhya Pradesh (29 seats), Karnataka (28), Gujarat (26), Rajasthan (25), Chhattisgarh (11), Delhi (7), Uttarakhand (5), Himachal Pradesh (4) and Goa (2)—where the Congress is directly pitted against the BJP. Of these 137 seats, the Congress may find it tough to reach the 60 mark. Added to that are States like Jharkhand (14), Punjab (13), Haryana (10) and Jammu and Kashmir (6), where the BJP would be facing polls along with its local allies. Of the 43 Lok Sabha seats here, the Congress may find it difficult to retain even 15 seats.
In Uttar Pradesh, which has the highest representation in the Lok Sabha with 80 seats, the Congress last time won 21, with more going to the ruling Samajwadi Party. If the multiple splits of the electorate (SP-BJPBSP-Congress) continue, the Congress is going to suffer. If it has to make it big, it has to win big-time in UP, which looks absolutely impossible at the moment. An alliance will not help much because both the SP and the BSP—if at all they choose to align with the Congress—will want to keep most of the seats for themselves. Indications are that most of the sitting ministers from the State in the Union Government are likely to lose and the Congress tally may not reach double digits this time.
Tamil Nadu is an extremely important State for the Congress. With the DMK, it had 26 seats (DMK 18 and Congress 8) in the last elections. With no anti-Jayalalithaa sentiment visible in the State now, the taint of 2G and effete handling of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue will hurt the Congress and the DMK both.
The Congress party has indulged in breeding sycophants. That could be seen in the appointment of various AICC general secretaries who have failed to perform time and again and yet they continue to occupy prime positions.
The only other State that stands out for the time being is Bihar which has 40 constituencies where the JD(U) and BJP together had won in 32. Whether the JD(U) will be able to repeat the performance with the Congress filling in for the BJP remains to be seen. The Congress had won only two seats the last time and that does not seem likely to increase this time either.
The way forward
It is here that the Congress leadership would have to invent a new wheel. It would have to change its leaders, politics and economics completely. It would have to start from the basics if it wants to be relevant in the Indian political arena. It would have to look beyond Rahul’s votebank politics, Manmohanomics and Sonianomics.
The voice of opposition from within the party is likely to grow stronger now and the Gandhis will find it difficult to keep up the morale of the party workers to fight the big battle against a resurgent BJP with an aggressive and acerbic Modi as its commander.
As a senior commentator writes, “What the Congress leaders would have to think of the next few weeks is the prospect that the grand old party could be wiped out of the political map of the bigger States in northern and eastern parts of India, with governments in only a few States like Karnataka, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana. This is a disastrous prospect for the party, given that it has no chance of revival in Bihar, UP, Odisha, West Bengal or Punjab.”
Under these circumstances, both Sonia and Rahul would have to toil afresh to generate new content, work out new formulae, build up a new team of advisers and find new speech writers because they have already exhausted their rights-based government rhetoric in this round of assembly elections.
A section of Congress leaders has also started saying in private conversation that their biggest concern now is that the Gandhis have stopped being vote-catchers for the party and that was clearly visible in the disastrous assembly election results.
Clearly, declaring Rahul as the Congress party’s Prime Ministerial candidate to challenge the BJP’s Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls would be out of sync with reality. A section of Congressmen feels that it would be an inopportune moment to expose Rahul as its trump card in the face of so many odds. The majority, however, is keen on making the Congress vice-president its Prime Ministerial candidate despite understanding the pitfalls associated with the decision.
As a senior Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh said, “The present coterie culture has already destroyed the Congress party’s organisational architecture at all levels over the last few years. The self-serving and selfperpetuating middle level leadership has entrenched itself so deeply that nothing else than a purge would help clean the Augean stables and the efforts of Rahul to remedy the situation by bringing in elections to the organisation has not started delivering the results yet.”
Another Congress leader was more forthright in saying that “Rahul Gandhi may have all good attentions and even a big pedigree, but he has a long way to go if he really wants to confront Modi and lead the party to a respectable stage”.
Obviously, the party cannot ignore the external challenges—a hugely unpopular Central government thanks to charges of corruption, poor
governance, inability to rein in prices and general apathy towards the economy. Modi, with his loud and aggressive attack on the Congress and calculated approach to woo micro constituencies, has already got a massive early lead in the race of 2014.
Let the PM candidate be elected
The Congress President has disclosed that she will name the Congress party’s Prime Ministerial candidate at an appropriate time. However, political pundits interpret it in different ways. According to one political commentator, “Rahul Gandhi should follow his promise by insisting that the PM candidate be chosen in an open election in which every primary member of the party has a vote. On the other hand, if the Congress President anoints Rahul Gandhi the same way she did with Manmohan Singh, then the voters of India will know that the Congress has had no real change of heart.”
Another noted political commentator said, “Rahul Gandhi needs to do something dramatic to restore people’s faith in him. It is no use invoking the merits of AAP as long as the aam aadmi in the Congress has no say. Words have never been Rahul’s forté. Perhaps, then, radical action can save a fast-sinking trajectory.”
Even a few Congress insiders are prepared to concede in private conversations that Rahul is turning into an object of voter apathy and they are worried that the party and Rahul need to re-discover their exact worth and charisma before plunging into the 2014 polls.
With inputs from Narendra Kaushik