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Can the Congress re-invent itself again?

By Saroj Nagi
January 02, 2013 18:54 IST
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Both the Congress and the UPA government are racing against time to try and revamp their image with the people. The new direct benefit transfer schemes, the proposed food security bill, the land acquisition bill and perhaps the women's reservation bill are among the vehicles that the Congress intends to use to reach out to the people, says Saroj Nagi.

For the third time in less than 15 years, the Congress is being called to reinvent itself. The big question is can it?

When Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party organisation in 1997-98, the Congress had virtually touched its nadir. The party lacked direction, vision and an agenda. It was reeling under a crisis of credibility and its image was badly dented by allegations of corruption and ineptitude.

Fighting against all personal and political odds, Sonia reworked the Congress strategy both in form and content after coming into active politics and taking over the reins of the party in 1997-98. And though the party fared poorly in the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary polls (winning 141 and 114 seats respectively) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance came to power at the Centre, Sonia used the experience to re-launch the Congress and project it as a viable and credible alternative.

Almost a year before the Lok Sabha polls in 2004, Sonia took a leaf out of Indira Gandhi's book and gave the party a leftward tilt. She recast her mother-in-law's populist 'garibi hatao' war-cry with the slogan of 'Congress ka haath, garib ke saath' -- which was supplanted by the more expansive 'aam aadmi ke saath' for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

Along with this, at the Congress' brainstorming session in Shimla in 2003 she jettisoned the party's 'ekla chalo' stance formulated at the Panchmarhi conclave in 1998 so that the party could net allies and come to power at the Centre with their help.

Conscious that the Congress could not win back its traditional vote bank of dalits, muslims and upper castes on its own, it tried to get their support by wooing parties which had established their hold over them. It did business, for example, with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party to win the support of Muslims and Dalits in Bihar during the elections and of their MPs to form a government. Sonia walked the extra mile to rope in the Nationalist Congress Party which has broken away on the question of her foreign origin.

The strategy of forging alliances with like-minded and secular forces succeeded and the party won the 2004 general elections, helped no doubt also by the hollowness of BJP-NDA's claims of 'India Shining'.

This was the first re-invention of the Congress under Sonia Gandhi.

The second reinvention stemmed from a set of circumstances that saw the elevation of Manmohan Singh as prime minister after Sonia refused the post and the election of Rahul Gandhi as an MP from Amethi brought him into the public domain.

For the first time, the Congress was led by the trio of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party president Sonia Gandhi and gen-next leader Rahul Gandhi. Each of them brought a distinct constituency to the party which had been floundering since the splitting of its Dalit-Muslim-upper caste support to other parties in the Hindi-speaking belt of the country.

Singh, who first opened up the economy as finance minister in P V Narasimha Rao's government between 1991-1996, emerged as the hero of the industry and the middle classes which had pegged their faith for a better future from the benefits accruing from a liberalised economy. Rahul Gandhi was packaged as a youth icon for the party and the country that was getting increasingly younger demographically.

Sonia, on her part, consolidated her position as the champion of the poor -- giving the Left parties a run for their money -- when as Congress president, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance and head of the National Advisory Council, she used the five years since 2004 to make a strong pitch for inclusive governance that saw the government coming out with pro-people measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (rechristened as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to prevent non-Congress state governments from taking credit for it), the Right to Information and the farm loan waiver scheme.

In emerging as the champions of the aam aadmi, the middle-classes and the youth, Sonia, Singh and Rahul provided a formidable combination that managed to reach out to people otherwise divided and segmented along caste lines.

The post-2009 scenario is turning out to be a different story altogether. Ever since it assumed office for the second time in 2009, the Congress-led UPA (popularly called UPA-II) has been lurching from one crisis to another. The middle-classes, which swore by Singh earlier, have often expressed their enchantment with him. The lower middle class and the poor have been badly hit by price rise in general and the hike in petroleum prices in particular.

Rahul Gandhi's tag of a youth icon has been wrested by youngsters like Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav who spearheaded his party's campaign in the 2012 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and became the youngest chief minister of his state. Like him, Rahul too had led his party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh but fared poorly.

Unlike parties which are based on caste or other identities and therefore have at least one solid vote bank to call their own, the Congress has to scour for support.

It is time for a third reinvention of the party.

But is the Congress capable of it? Or has it run out of luck? And will it bank on the disarray in other major parties and peg its faith on the TINA (there is no alternative) factor?

Manmohan Singh will not be the face of the party and government in the 2014 elections. Besides the fact that he is not getting any younger -- he is already 80 years old -- the shine has gone out of Singh's USP as the icon of the middle classes. His government has been battling charges of big corruption that include the Commonwealth Games scam, the Adarsh housing society controversy and the telecom, coalgate and spectrum scandals. The failure to check prices has also dented the image of the party and the government.

For eight years Rahul has been in the public eye but has not yet emerged as a leader in his own right even though he is widely expected to be the party's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. There again he would face an uphill task both politically and personally.

While much would depend on how many seats each party wins in 2014, there is little doubt that the main claimants for the prime minister's post could be from among the chief ministers ranging from Nitish Kumar of Bihar to his arch rival Narendra Modi of Gujarat whose third successive victory in the assembly polls could allow him to re-position himself in the BJP and on the national arena.

Unlike the chief ministers -- who could also include BJD's Naveen Patnaik or AIADMK's Jayalalithaa as possible kingmakers -- Rahul would be in no position to talk about his record of governance, having rejected repeated invitations to join the Singh cabinet. All he would have to show are his interventions with the government on certain schemes and issues.

Indeed Rahul has failed to pass muster the four crucial tests he had set for himself. He could not deliver the party in the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh assembly polls and perhaps because of this he did not lead the party's campaign in Gujarat where Modi's victory was seen as assured, the only debate hinging on his margin of victory.

The Congress leader's dream project of broad-basing and democratising the Youth Congress is yet to take concrete and complete shape. He also failed to step out to empathise with the young people who were expressing their anger and anguish at the brutal rape of a 23-year-old girl and were looking for solace and some assurance from the political class -- a failure that perhaps compromised his image as a gen-next leader with the younger generation so much so that one angry witterati even wondered whether Rahul was a fictional character.

As the head of the organisation, Sonia remains the guiding force behind the government. Her ill-health in between saw her stepping back a little. The meetings of the party's highest decision making body, the Congress Working Committee, have been few and far between even though the party needed intense discussions to firm up its stand on crucial issues including reservations in promotions for scheduled castes and creation of a separate state of Telangana.

The practice she had started of holding chief minister's conclaves and brainstorming sessions was spaced out. The last such major conclave was held in 2006 at Nainital in the backdrop of rising prices and where she provided the broad contours on dealing with the issue of special economic zones.

With general elections scheduled in about 15 months from now, the Congress president will have to become pro-active again and use her credibility with the people to win back their confidence. It is perhaps for this reason that she convened a sanvad baithak (dialogue session) in Surajkund in November 2012 -- in the backdrop of a public outcry over the rise in prices of petrol and a cap on LPG cylinders -- where she directed the party and the government to pull up their socks and fulfill the promises of the 2009 manifesto if the Congress has to win the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

A coordination group and three subgroups were set up to focus on issues like pre-poll alliances, preparing the manifesto and dealing with government programmes and publicity.

Underlying this is the harsh reality staring the Congress and the Congress-led UPA in the face: a credibility gap with the people, growing anti-incumbency and the deepening organisational problems of the party.

Indeed, although the Congress has been in power at the Centre since 2004, it has not been able to use this opportunity to revive itself in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, which account for nearly 200 Lok Sabha seats and where it has been reduced to a fringe player if not a non-entity.

It hasn't been doing well even in the Chhattisgarh or Madhya Pradesh where the polity is polarised between the Congress and the BJP. It has been out of power in Gujarat for over two decades now. And Andhra Pradesh -- where its electoral performance had helped the party come to power at the Centre in 2004 and 2009 -- is in a tailspin.

These and other issues would be on top of the mind of the Congress leadership when the much-delayed brainstorming session that Sonia has spoken of at the plenary session of the All India Congress Committee in Burari December 2010 finally takes place in Jaipur on January 18-19, 2013. This will be followed by a one day AICC session to meet the constitutional requirement of holding such a session.

The meeting inevitably will discuss the current political and economic situation, with the issue of alliances expected to be high on the agenda as had happened in Panchmarhi and Shimla -- the first held after the party's defeat in 1998 and the other to prepare for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Coming after the results of the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the Jaipur conclave will seek to prepare the roadmap for the assembly elections in nine states in 2013, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi and the big time 2014 parliamentary polls.

Indeed, the outcome of the assembly polls in 2013 is likely to have a bearing on the party's prospects in the 2014 Lok Saba polls. The stakes are high indeed for the Congress-led UPA, the BJP-NDA and a possible third front of non-UPA, non-NDA parties which sees a role for itself should there be a hung Parliament which they anticipate.

About 300 senior leaders, including party chief ministers, legislature party leaders, Union cabinet ministers, Congress working committee members and chiefs of frontal organisations will put their heads together to work out the party's response to major issues flagged at the meeting, under the rubric of emerging political and socio-economic challenges, India and the world and, perhaps the most important of them all for the party, the organisational challenge which has been haunting the party as it fervently looks for a magic wand to rebuild its social, political and geographical base.

The deliberations will be followed by a day-long AICC session of about 1,200 participants who will then fan out across the country to take the message emerging from the meeting.

But with the Manmohan Singh administration gripped by a policy paralysis as it battled allegations of corruption, there is very little time left for the Congress-UPA to repair the faultlines and rework its image with the people. But the Congress is expected to once again make the aam aadmi the central theme of its discussions and campaigns in an effort to reach out to people, specially in the rural areas and the vast hinterland.

Not surprisingly, both the party and the government are now racing against time to try and revamp their image with the people. This became evident in their push for foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail while dismissing all opposition with the claim that it will benefit the farmers.

The Centre's new direct benefit transfer schemes, the proposed food security bill, the cabinet clearance to the land acquisition bill and perhaps the women's reservation bill which has been passed by the Rajya Sabha but is yet to get the nod of the Lok Sabha are among the vehicles that the Congress intends to use to reach out to the people.

Will all this be the game changer that the Congress is desperately hoping for or will it be a case of too little too late?

Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist based in New Delhi

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