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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

Can Sonia revitalise the Congress?

June 03, 2008

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The Congress has finally bestirred itself and decided to constitute a committee to suggest how to revitalise the party. In recent months, the party had given up appointing even the post-poll committees, which used to be a routine affair, following poll defeats. This did not happen after Gujarat or Uttarakhand or Uttar Pradesh or Punjab. Of course, the recommendations of earlier high-powered groups gather dust in some forgotten almirah at 24 Akbar Road. But at least the party used to go through the motions of trying to fix responsibility.

Saturday's CWC meet went into the reasons for the party's defeat in Karnataka. There were the usual reasons cited. Tickets should be given in time, party organisation galvanised below the DCC level, door to door campaigns. Leaders lamented the sympathy factor in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the huge amount of money available with the saffron forces.

There are many ills afflicting India's grand old party but at the heart of it is the need to build up a leadership at the state, district and block levels, to encourage new and fresh faces, while utilising experience, and to encourage autonomous functioning -- if it is serious about revival.
The message of Karnataka is that things cannot be micromanaged from Delhi. First S M Krishna was sent packing to Maharashtra after the party's defeat last time, at the instance of the High Command. Then he was brought back to Bangalore this year, inexplicably, in the teeth of opposition from other state leaders, and that too at the last moment. But he was prevented from contesting, creating an uncertainty in the Vokkaligas that their man would be made CM, though gone are the days when mere tokenism worked.

Krishna's return created a great deal of heartburn among other leaders, and it sent confusing signals to the Dalits. They too became uncertain whether their man -- Mallikarjun Kharge -- would be a frontrunner for CMship. This hurt the Congress, particularly when the other side had a clearly endorsed leader in BS Yeddyurappa, whose popularity ratings were high. And, there was a Mayawati waiting in the wings to encash the Dalit aspirations to power. Delhi was responsible for the confusion over leadership and it did nothing for the party's prospects.

Similarly, there has been no explanation as to why six leaders from Karnataka have been given various responsibilities at the AICC and CWC level -- Margaret Alva, Oscar Fernandes, Veerappa Moily, Janardhan Poojary, CK Jaffer Sharief and BK Hari Prasad -- and   five of them are from one district. And why for all their high profile, they could not stop the party's defeat.

Such is the state party's dependence on the Centre that people call up the AICC office to get permission even for the smallest of decisions. They do not take initiative till the Centre cracks the whip. This is so different from the time when taluka level leaders could manage the show. But that was an era when districts had thrown up national leaders.

The problem is not just of micro-management from Delhi. The decision-making base of the party has also shrunk. In the last two years, Sonia Gandhi [Images] has increasingly left things to a handful of people, and they seem to be making decisions in her name. This was not the case when she took over as Congress president, when a large group used to cogitate over issues and there was a cross- fertilisation of ideas before a decision was taken. 

The number of people entrusted with responsibilities has also shrunk. It is the same 10-15 people who are ministers and holding party responsibilities, as if there is no one else capable left in the party. This too has created widespread resentment -- and demotivation -- in the party cadre.

No one expects Sonia Gandhi to be an Indira Gandhi [Images], and Sonia has herself made this point repeatedly. The challenges before Indira Gandhi were very different from the ones faced by Sonia, who has to contend with a party in decline, in a coalition era.  Indira Gandhi had her coterie, and every leader has people she is comfortable with and can trust. But Indira Gandhi's coterie � ML Fotedar, RK Dhawan, Yashpal Kapur -- knew their place. And she consulted widely before taking major decisions.

Sonia Gandhi's hangers-on have created insecurities in the leader and a chasm between her and the PM to make her increasingly dependent on them. How else does one explain the deliberate decision of party advisors not to get crowds to the PM's meetings, whether it was in Punjab or in Gujarat or in Karnataka? A party that undermines its prime minister is shooting itself in the foot. Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] can be criticised for pursuing certain policies, but he has shown no inclination to move out of step with Sonia or to upstage her.

It is a free-for-all in the Congress today. Arjun Singh [Images] is chastised for sycophancy, for creating an embarrassment for the party by projecting Rahul Gandhi [Images] as prime minister. But he is placed besides Sonia Gandhi at the high table at the Four Years of UPA dinner. Vilasrao Deshmukh is on his "way out" every few weeks, but no decision is taken either to retain him or to send him packing, creating an uncertain situation for the party in Maharashtra. Lalu Yadav boasted privately that he had managed to chew up the Congress. So pathetic is the Congress's position in Bihar that few know who the PCC chief is or what he looks like. There is little grip or direction evident in the party.

The Congress cannot do without the Gandhi-Nehru family, and they ensure the unity of the party. The Congress experimented with a Narasimha Rao and went back to the family. Sonia Gandhi neither faces a threat to her leadership nor a prospect of a split, which her mother-in-law had to contend with. But she will have to show a resoluteness she displayed in early 2004 -- and maybe a Kamaraj Plan in the party? -- if the party is to revitalise.

In the past, the Congress was more than a political organisation, and stood for a secular and democratic state and an equitable economic and social order. Today, it has become a ticket for a post, a vehicle for commerce, with leaders pursuing their individual agendas, alienated from the party's roots.

The health of the Congress affects not just Congressmen and women. Many Indians have a stake in the revival of the party, in the interest of a vibrant democracy, particularly at a time when the polity is being increasingly regionalised, and complex economic challenges lie ahead.

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