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Can a re-energised Rahul revive the Congress?

By Saroj Negi
May 26, 2015 13:39 IST
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Rahul Gandhi


Congress gets into the opposition groove but still has miles to go, says Saroj Nagi.

As the Narendra Modi government launches a blitzkrieg on its performance during its first year in office, the single biggest achievement the Congress can claim is to have wrested for itself during this period is to have emerged as a viable opposition in Parliament, vigilant, alert and ready to put the government under the scanner and on the mat.

Though the party has a long haul before it, particularly in hitting the ground to win back the confidence of the people or in re-tuning the 130-year-old organisation for the multiple challenges it faces, it has managed to establish its presence in the Lok Sabha where the Bharatiya Janata Party has a majority and in the Rajya Sabha where the Opposition outnumbers the ruling combine.

Recall the initial days in the new Parliament when a demoralised Congress was battling for Opposition space with an entire range of parties. The Congress which had slumped from 200 plus seats in the Lok Sabha to a measly 44 so much so that it could not even claim the status of leader of the Opposition.

But as the days rolled by, one by one most of the other parties either fell in line or softened their stand on the Modi government and the issues it espoused or became involved with their own problems. In this milieu, the Congress emerged as the main flag bearer of an unrelenting and aggressive opposition -- a fact that party chief Sonia Gandhi underlined by leading a joint opposition march to Rashtrapati Bhavan against the Modi government’s amended land acquisition ordinance that compromised the consent and social assessment clauses of the UPA sponsored legislation.

“In each session we have put the government on the mat. Six months after the BJP came to power, in the winter session of Parliament in 2015, we pointed out how the government was a U-turn sarkar. In the first half of the Budget session in 2015, we raised the issue of how the BJP leaders and ministers were fuelling tensions with their controversial and communal statements. In the second half of the Budget session, we raised the issue of farmers’ distress and the government’s move to dilute the land acquisition law,” said Gaurav Gogoi, a first time Congress MP in the Lok Sabha.

Surprise finds

Indeed, the Congress’s one year in Parliament has thrown up some surprises from within. Sonia’s choice of Mallikarjun Kharge as party leader in the Lok Sabha had raised doubts but the former minister proved his skeptics wrong with his consistent performance in the House. He was regular, visible, audible and measured in his interventions. The fact that he was bilingual helped.

Fresh faces like Gogoi and Sushmita Deb proved to the finds of the season. With politics in their DNA -- Gogoi is the son of Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and Deb is the daughter of former Congress heavyweight Santosh Kumar Deb -- they turned out to the new Gen Next of the Congress who are articulate, adept and ready to take on new responsibilities including as spokespersons a task in which have already notched up some credits.

They complement their senior parliamentarians including young leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Hooda and old-timers like Veerappa Moily, Kamal Nath or Amarinder Singh, the former Punjab chief minister. Then, there are also the likes of Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary and Rajya Sabha member who has been making himself seen and heard as never following the party’s Lok Sabha defeat and in the backdrop of speculation of Rahul Gandhi’s possible elevation as party chief.

Repackaged Rahul silences skeptics, old guard, Priyanka lao brigade

But the biggest surprise has been a repackaged Rahul who was slammed for skipping much of the crucial Budget session in which the contentious land acquisition law was to come up. The Amethi MP however returned almost magically transformed from his much-derided 56-day sabbatical and went straight for the ‘56-inch’ chested Modi by painting his government as ‘pro corporate’, ‘anti-poor’, ‘anti-farmer’ and a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ in a stinging allusion to the prime minister’s expensively monogrammed suit which was later auctioned off to contain the damage it had done to his image.

Rahul’s challenge that the globe-trotting PM should find time to visit farmers reeling under the burden of crop losses and debts put the government on the back foot.

In a change from the past, the Nehru-Gandhi scion was sharp and focused in his attack. He did not ramble, waver or digress as he was prone to do earlier; nor did he need to roll up his sleeves to display his aggression. He packed in more in the one month since his return than he had in the 11 years he has been an MP with his parliamentary interventions and identification with burning issues that ranged from farmers’ suicides to crop losses and net neutrality. He took the train, trekked or went on padyatras to empathise with the distressed and attack the Modi regime who he gave 0 out of 10 at a rally in Amethi.

On the face of it, Rahul seemed to be in his element as an Opposition leader. After all, he was often the opposition within the ruling UPA when he pressurised the Manmohan Singh government to either pursue or expand programmes like NREGA or roll back controversial decisions like the proposed ordinance to shield convicted lawmakers.

Has Rahul really changed?

But the big question is whether the Amethi MP can sustain himself in this new role and whether the transformation he has worked for himself during his extended sabbatical away from prying eyes would hold in the coming days or will he slide back to what he was earlier. In other words, is his transformation for real or is it temporary and transient and would last only until his much speculated anointment as party chief this year?

The doubts and misgivings have arisen because Rahul’s track record in the last one decade hasn’t been inspiring. He would disappear when his presence was required; he lacked worker-voter-people connect; he led the party to serial defeats before, during and after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls; and he showed himself to be a shirker of responsibility by refusing to join the Manmohan Singh cabinet or leading his truncated party in the Lok Sabha. And yet, each time he failed he was feted with a promotion, including as vice president.

Although there were rumblings about his uninspiring leadership, the magnitude of the defeat in the parliamentary elections saw several Congress leaders attacking him either openly or hitting out at him in the only way they know -- by urging Sonia to bring Priyanka Vadra into active politics so that the party is led not by Rahul alone but a troika of Sonia-Priyanka-Rahul in that order.

But the arrival of a re-booted Rahul has had three immediate fallouts in the Congress. It has silenced Congress leaders ranging from Sheila Dikshit to Amarinder Singh who had demanded that Sonia should continue as party chief and Rahul remain her apprentice. It has put a stop to slogans of Priyanka Lao until, of course, he falters again. And three, it has forced the old guard to accept the inevitability of a change of guard in which a new generation of leaders would emerge as key figures around Rahul. Indeed, already the younger lot are seen accompanying or forming a protective ring around Rahul both in Parliament and on his campaigns.

“The next six months are crucial. If he keeps up this tempo, the Congress can hope to have a future. For the moment while the change in him is welcome, he remains on test,” said a senior Congressman.

Three challenges

But Congressmen are aware that even a transformed Rahul is simply not enough to bring the party back into the reckoning.

There are at least three major challenges that need to be addressed if the party has to be considered as an option and an alternative.

The first is to reactivate and rejig the party organisation into a well-oiled machinery. After ruling the country for the better part of over six decades, it had gone into a rut bouncing back each time only because of its rivals’ failure to stay together. Although Sonia reworked the party’s tactics and strategy to bring the Congress to power in its first coalitional exercise at the Centre in 2004, her party had to pay heavily for UPA-2’s failure to check prices, corruption and malgoverance.

Sonia also failed to use the party’s 10-year rule at the Centre to strengthen the organisation in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu or even West Bengal which together account for 201 Lok Sabha seats and where the party has been marginalised by strong regional parties or region based outfits so much so that its own workers and supporters deserted it for greener pastures.

The severity of the crisis before the party can be gauged from the fact that the Congress is currently in power in only nine states -- Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the north, Karnataka and Kerala (where it heads the United Democratic Front coalition) in the south, and Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast, which together add up to a measly 78 of the 543 elective Lok Sabha seats.

Vast tracts are out of its influence, with the party pushed into the background each time a third force as evidenced recently in bifurcated Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Indeed, in several states, the Congress does not even have the rank of leader of opposition.

Even now despite its parliamentary interventions there is nothing to show that it has hit the ground outside. Even the completion of one year of the Modi government has not prodded the party to take to the streets in a big way. Instead, its leaders appear content to hold a series of press conferences to expose the Modi regime and that too in major cities. The second tier towns, provinces and outbacks which influence an electoral outcome have by and large been ignored or bypassed.

The organisation itself is in the pause mode with the party elections likely to hoist Rahul either as party chief or working president. How Rahul handles the organisation would be crucial for the Congress’s future. His controversial experiment to democratise the Youth Congress, for instance, ended up corroding the frontal organisation with the role that money power began to play in internal elections.

The second major challenge before the Congress is to try and win back the confidence and support of the people in general and social groups in particular. The mandir-mandal agitations whisked away its Brahmin-Muslim-Scheduled Caste support in the Hindi heartland while it lost its traditional support base to the Dravidian parties in the south.

In the early part of this century, Sonia tried to get around the caste divide by identifying the Congress with the common man and the poor with her emotive slogan of ‘Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath’ much like Indira Gandhi’s ‘garibi hatao’. It paid political dividends in 2004 and 2009 so that Sonia was seen as the mascot of the poor, Manmohan Singh of the middle class and Rahul as a representative of a demographically young India. But all this evaporated when the three sections became a victim of relentless price rise, jobless growth and other governmental maladies of the UPA-2.

The Congress is now back to square one in once again trying to rework its social equations. Whether the party will succeed remains to be seen but if Rahul’s forays are any indication, it is once again striving to give its politics a pro-poor and pro-people tilt by trying to reach out to the farmers, the weavers, the fishermen and other marginalised sections while branding the Modi government as pro corporate, anti-poor and anti-middle class.

The Congress’s third challenge is to project itself as an alternative. It may make political sense to attack the Modi government and pick holes in its policies, programmes and functioning including its inability to check prices, failure to rein in fringe elements whose remarks strain the social fabric or shortchange parliamentary procedures by dubbing proposals as money bills to escape the scrutiny of the Rajya Sabha where it lacks a majority.

So far, the Congress has resorted to just two strategies to pin down the BJP-NDA. The first is to expose the government’s failures and the BJP’s alleged doubled standards. And the second is to underline that the new government’s ‘achievements’ are actually only renamed and recycled versions of the UPA’s policies, with Modi’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan or the insurance schemes for example drawing sustenance from the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan and the Aam Aadmi Beema Yojana.

Absence of a policy agenda/roadmap

But if the Congress wants to be taken seriously, it will have to go beyond sound bytes and press conferences. It has to come out with an action plan, a policy agenda and a vision document to entice the voters which had rejected it in 2014. While the activity of the last few days are seen as a welcome change, “there is no clear roadmap at the moment,” said a Congress leader.

This is considered a major failing specially as Sonia had in 2008 set up a committee on future challenges to identify these threats and recommend measures to deal with them. The report was submitted to her but it has neither been shared or followed up.

Indeed, the much promised brainstorming session following the serial electoral defeats has not materialised. Perhaps sensing that Rahul would be targeted at the introspective session, Sonia instead tasked senior leader A K Antony to identify the factors for the Lok Sabha debacle. He prepared a sanitised report in which he gave a clean chit to Rahul although several leaders had in their deposition blamed him and his non-political coterie for the disaster.

Antony’s report also failed to outline any revival plan although the drew a blank in 19 states and union territories, could not get even a 20 per cent vote share in the elections and fell short by 11 seats for the LoP post -- a position it unsuccessfully begged for from the BJP because a LoP was vital for the selection of the Lok Pal, CVC, NHRC or CIC. The government relented partially by including the leader of the largest opposition party in the panel for selecting the CIC. But that is as far it has gone so far.

But unless the party manages to revive itself at the national and the state levels, it may find itself continually outrun by its rivals, including by newbies like the Aam Aadmi Party which has pushed the Congress into the wilderness in Delhi. The immediate future does not hold much promise of a comeback, with assembly elections slated in Bihar (later this year), West Bengal, Tamil Nadu (2016) or UP (2017) where the Congress is not even in the reckoning. The best that the party can do is to use the occasion to galvanise the organisation.

Clearly, the road ahead for the Congress remains long, lonely and tortuous.

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Saroj Negi