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Time for Sonia to choose between Rahul and Congress revival

By Saroj Nagi
February 10, 2015 15:27 IST

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul GandhiDelhi 2015 is a warning of an intensifying nightmare in the offing, says Saroj Nagi.

It now seems to boil down to a choice between Rahul Gandhi's elevation and Congress revival -- and no two guesses on what Congress President Sonia Gandhi will choose.

Never mind that the Congress has got a duck in the Delhi assembly election after drawing a blank in as many as 19 states and Union territories in the Lok Sabha election steered by Rahul nine months ago.

The only consolation Congresswallahs can draw from the poll outcome is that after a roller coaster ride, the BJP has suddenly been steamrolled by the Aam Aadmi Party and reduced to a single digit in Delhi.

That consolation can hardly camouflage the harsh reality that Delhi has been added to the growing list of states where the Congress would find it difficult to revive itself. The party's track record shows that wherever there are two other dominant parties, the Congress has been decimated or reduced to a marginal entity and has not been able to revive itself.

Take the case of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu where the Congress is not even considered a factor. Add to this, Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP has struck roots or Andhra Pradesh or Telangana or Delhi now.

If this does not reflect the magnitude of the crisis of survival that the 130-year-old party faces, take a rough count of the states where it is in power: Kerala and Karnataka (with 20 and 28 Lok Sabha seats) standing out as larger states in the cluster of pygmy states like Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam or Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram or Meghalaya.

The writing has been on the wall for the party in view of its rout in the Lok Sabha polls and the string of assembly polls in the last few years including in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Yet the top leadership remained immune and shut its eyes to it.

Delhi 2015 is a warning of an intensifying nightmare in the offing. AAP's resurgence and the BJP's rout makes the turf tougher for the Congress in the assembly elections coming up in Bihar this year and in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in 2016 and Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Punjab in 2017 where it will face not only strong regional parties but also the BJP and a resurgent AAP -- specially in Punjab from where AAP won four Lok Sabha seats.

The picture could get bleaker than this. But the party has not shown any urgency to take any corrective steps. All it did after the general election was to set up a fact finding panel which blamed every other factor for the debacle other than Rahul Gandhi whose lacklustre leadership which several Congress leaders held responsible for the party's declining social and political appeal.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who turned the party's fortunes around by experimenting with coalition politics at the Centre, is seen as more interested in promoting and elevating her son.

Rahul's rise has been inversely proportional to the party's downfall. The higher he ascended in the organisation, the more rapidly the party tumbled, his efforts to revamp, broadbase and democratise the frontal organisations a cropper evident to all but him and his aides.

His refusal to take responsibility for governance or parliamentary performance showed him up as a shirker. And each time, he failed to deliver organisationally or electorally, he was rewarded with a party post. So is it time for him to get rewarded again?

It would seem so. The party president's election is coming up mid-year and from all indications Sonia Gandhi would like to anoint him to the post given the fact that she is getting on in age and does not keep good health.

Senior party leaders like Digvijaya Singh have been calling for Rahul's elevation but talk to any Congress leader privately and they seem to shrink in horror at the prospect of being led by a leader who has nothing much to show in his report card except failures (other than a freak victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls) since he entered active politics in 2004 as the MP from Amethi.

The anti-Rahul sentiment has been expressed in the only possible way that Congressmen can think of -- raising voices, placards, banners and slogans urging Sonia to bring her daughter and Rahul's sister Priyanka into active politics in the fond hope that she would bring freshness, vigour and a fighting spirit into the paralysed outfit and rekindle memories of the political acumen and boldness displayed by her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, in worsting her adversaries.

It happened again on Tuesday, February 10, when the first trends of the Delhi results showed the Congress sinking deeper into the political quagmire. There were loud and desperate demands from despairing workers for Priyanka as a panacea to the threats to their survival and existence.

Is Priyanka really the solution?

She remains an untested leader in the sense that all her politics has been focused in winning the two parliamentary seats of Rae Bareli and Amethi for Sonia and Rahul who for the first time in the 2014 general election had to sweat it out in his constituency.

When it came to the assembly polls in these two constituencies, she fared as poorly as her brother did in the rest of the country, managing to get only two of the 10 assembly segments for the party in Amethi and Rae Bareli.

If the locals were disabused of her pulling power, the series of electoral debacles is likely to raise questions about the faith desperate Congressmen entertained -- that a Nehru or a Gandhi -- however insipid might be their leadership -- would act as a cementing force.

With the BJP getting a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha and most regional parties ruling on their strength, the political stock of Congress leaders has gone down both within and outside their parties.

Witness the decisive defeats of the so-called tall leaders of the party in national and state elections including in Delhi where its campaign committee chief Ajay Maken has offered his resignation as general secretary.

Sonia and Rahul also took the blame for the rout in the Lok Sabha polls and offered to step down -- an offer that was rejected by the party's working committee filled with the Congress president's nominees.

The moot question is not who takes the blame for the debacles that have continued to decimate the party in the last three years in particular. The top leadership of the national and state units are expected to do it.

The real issue is what does the leadership do to repair the damage that has been inflcted on them by voters. It is here that the Congress top brass has failed the party, the workers and perhaps even democracy which requires a vigilant Opposition to make it healthy.

There is nothing to show that Sonia and Rahul have undertaken any serious introspection of the rapid erosion of the party both socially and geographically. The party's traditional support base of Brahmins-Muslims-Scheduled Castes is now part of history and has switched loyalty to other regional forces that had emerged on the political horizon ranging from the BJP to the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party, among others.

Sonia's attempts to circumvent the caste factor by reaching out to the poor and middle class helped the Congress come to power at the Centre as the head of a coalition in 2004 and 2009. But it paid for the malgoverance of the United Progressive Alliance-2 so much so that newbie parties like AAP walked away with its supporters among the poor, the dispossessed and the minorities and threatens to do the same in some of the adjoining states, notably Punjab.

Indeed, it is also likely to displace the Congress as the first choice for an alliance in the assembly elections coming up in states as evidenced in the manner in which both the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress -- bitter rivals in West Bengal -- backed AAP in the Delhi elections.

Regional forces in Bihar, UP or West Bengal may give the Congress a cold shoulder when elections come up in these states unless the party revives itself.

Sonia's promise of a brainstorming session remains a chimera and Rahul's vow to learn from its Delhi assembly defeat in 2013 proved rhetorical. Nine months after the Lok Sabha defeat, there is no sign of a conclave to thrash out the factors for the defeat and try and rebuild the organisation.

Will the latest electoral onslaught goad the Congress to act -- and honestly?

Many believe that if the Congress president does indeed convene such a session it might once again turn out to be a stage managed show of the kind that took place in Jaipur 2013 where a supposedly chintan shivir turned into a ceremony to crown Rahul as party vice-president.

The question that now stares Sonia in the face is one of choosing between Rahul's elevation as party chief or the Congress's survival.

It is no longer Rahul and Congress survival, but of choosing between the son and the party.

Saroj Nagi is a Delhi-based political analyst.

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