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The curious case of a party in disarray

May 22, 2014 10:25 IST

The curious case of a party in disarray

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Aditi Phadnis

In 2004, Vir Bhoomi, the memorial for Rajiv Gandhi, was thronging with people on 21 May, the day he was assassinated.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had just come to power and although the PM had been named earlier, ministers were to be sworn in on May 22.

As a result, everyone who wanted/aspired to be a minister was present at Vir Bhoomi well before 6 am, when the programme begins every year.

Ten years later, on 21 May 2014, following a massive electoral defeat of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi along with Priyanka, Robert and Rahul arrived at Vir Bhoomi at 6.15 am.

Priyanka’s mother in law, Maureen, reached before her. But as she headed, as if to the manner born, for the VIP enclosure, she found her path blocked by burly SPG men and would have been subjected to the ignominy of being chased away, until some MPs who recognised her, intervened.

Usually, the President of India times his arrival with the PM and Sonia Gandhi. This year, Pranab Mukherjee arrived at 6.50 am, well after the chanting of ‘shanti mantra’ had started. Congress leaders said calls were made by Rashtrapati Bhavan security ascertaining a respectable crowd was present before the President set out.

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Image: President Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other members of her party at Vir Bhoomi


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Aditi Phadnis

Not one of Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade could be spotted: No Sachin Pilot, no RPN Singh, no Jitin Prasada, no Priya Dutt, no Jyoti Mirdha... Rahul looked subdued, even depressed, though Priyanka was her old self, greeting and meeting people.

Some of the 45 Congress MPs who have been returned to the Lok Sabha were present -- Shashi Tharoor and Kamal Nath, for instance.

But many of those who were ministers and MPs in the outgoing government were conspicuous by their absence: Jairam Ramesh, CP Joshi, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal... Former Home Minister SK Shinde, who lost by a margin of nearly 1.50 lakh votes was present.

So was former finance minister P Chidambaram but he did not linger. Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot came though the Congress did not win a single seat from Rajasthan. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Chief Minister or Haryana and Ibobi Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur were also present.

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Aditi Phadnis

“What we were most surprised to see was the absence of top party leaders like Motilalji (Motilal Vora, party treasurer). Normally, he’s the one who keeps account of who came and who didn’t and pulls us up if we don’t turn up at functions like these” said a younger party functionary without inflection.

He added that AICC headquarters had been getting calls since Tuesday -- but from lowly workers, not party and ex-government commissars, asking about passes to attend the function.

“Our guess is, for the first time in ten years, party workers thought they might have a chance of attending: usually we have to tell them they can’t come because leaders corner all the passes”, he said.

Party workers said there was a lot of informal discussion about the likely causes of the defeat.

Soon after an idea was floated -- that it might be a good idea to make Jyotiraditya Scindia vice president of the party. However, that was shot down as soon as it went up -- because senior leaders said it was one thing to accept Rahul’s leadership, but Scindia?

“It is necessary to have the Gandhi name” acknowledged one of them.

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Aditi Phadnis

One of the workers whipped out a list of members of the Congress Working Committee, the highest policymaking body of the party.

"Look at this list" he insisted, his ire growing by the minute.

"How many of these have won or are capable of winning an election? 10 out of 22 members of the CWC are nominated. Persons like Mohan Prakash, who had charge of as many as four states, will not able to win from any Lok Sabha seat. Chief Ministers of the states are not part of CWC. Kamal nath has won the Lok Sabha nine times. He’s not on the CWC. Verappa Moily has won the Karnataka election. He’s not on it either. Instead, you have Hem Prava Saikia, the wife of Hiteswar Saikia who was chief minister of Assam several decades ago..."

Another guffawed. "What are you saying! I am surprised that while we were in power, we did not set up a Department of Jugaad in the government. You could have had a jugaadi mantri like...” and then he stopped, refusing to name the man he had in mind for the job.

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Aditi Phadnis

Party workers say a committee will be set up, most likely headed by AK Antony to analyse the cases of the defeat.

"I can tell you now what the report will say: it will say we lost the election because the booth committees didn't do their job properly, because our door to door campaign was lacklustre... of course it was lacklustre," said a worker.

He then pulled out his mobile phone and brought up a text message on the screen. 'Dear Uncle' said the text message. 'I hope Congress leaders will learn a lesson from this defeat and will not keep party workers waiting at the gate for 12 hours and then refuse to see them because they didn’t have the time'.

"He is a worker from Bengal. He came to see a leader -- I won’t tell you his name. He got an appointment, waited to get time and then had to return without seeing him. He saw an industrialist he recognises from Bengal, zip past in a car, before the gates clanged shut. Our leaders had time to meet industrialists; not workers."

At the Congress Working Committee, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Congress party and government had done many things wrong -- but a road map was needed to set things right. Sonia Gandhi was authorised to draw up the road map. “All she can do is, call upon those who advised her, to advise her again. What are your bets about the advice she will get?” asked a worker.

“They were like demi-Gods” said one of them. “And they failed”.




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