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Why Sonia and the Congress lost Gujarat

December 28, 2007

Analysis: Sheela Bhatt

Before the Gujarat political drama is stored away in the archive of history, the defeated side needs a brutally frank introspection, especially since the reverberations of the stunning defeat have already started rocking national politics. The Congress party must properly assimilate the brutal truth of the conclusive defeat in Gujarat as it braces for a do-or-die electoral contest at the national level in a not-too-distant future.

Why did the Congress lose -- and lose so badly?

Ideas and ideology: The missing link

In Gujarat, a state where the issues of Hindutva, communalism and terrorism are intertwined, the Congress needed an aggressive rebuttal to the popular perception that it is soft on terror. More important, such a message needed to be given in Gujarati for it to be convincing, because Narendra Modi speaks in colloquial Gujarati and has a way with words. The issue had caught people's minds in the urban areas for a while now.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi tried to be bold in her December 1 'maut ka saudagar' (merchant of death) speech, but her effort backfired and resulted in political disaster. Her speech, although badly written and awkwardly delivered, was politically correct. The problem was that her party at the grassroots refused to echo her statements. This turned out to be one of the biggest failures of the Congress high command, and, without doubt, it sunk the party in the Gujarat election.

The Congress's commander-in-chief in Gujarat was as much out of sync with her foot soldiers as her soldiers were with her. Her speeches were Swahili to large numbers of her party men because their minds are Bharatiya Janata Party-ised; she seemed to be unaware of the extent of the Gujarat Congressman's erosion of commitment to her party's professed ideology.

When correspondent Krishna Kumar travelled to report on Sonia's speech in Jasdan in Saurashtra, his first remark was about this mismatch between Sonia and her party cadres. In the secular political battle, Sonia led from the top without realising that her age-old and tested ideology was just not percolating down. When she read out her typewritten speeches, people merely looked at her in awe and admiration, but took home none of the lessons she preached.

During the past one year, there were numerous signals of the missing links of ideas and ideology in her party's command structure which she seemed to have ignored. She took on Modi without first inspecting the dangerous fault line within her camp. When her party office bearers asked for her permission to admit BJP rebels like Dhirubhai Gajera and others, she merely ordered that their Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh connections be checked out and it be ascertained whether they have in the past 'hurt minority sentiments.' It is against her principles and commitments to admit such people, she noted.

She should have stuck to her commitments in private as well as in public.

Photographs: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Also read: Sonia's rally at Jasdan

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