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An uneasy Congress gears up to battle for its survival

September 12, 2016 12:08 IST

The Congress, out of power in UP for 27 years is making a big pitch to bounce back, on a cocktail of caste politics and promises of agriculture debt waiver worth Rs 49,000 crore and power rate reduction for farmers hit by high input costs and diminishing returns., reports Amit Agnihotri.

IMAGE: : Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi with children at the Acharya Narendra Dev Park during his Kisan Yatra in Faizabad. Photograph: PTI

Anxieties in the Congress party are mounting. Party president Sonia Gandhi has met no one, due to indisposition, for almost two weeks. More and more, issues are being referred to Rahul Gandhi and the expectation is that he will be made working president, leaving his mother a nominal president.

However, the younger Gandhi’s predisposition for putting in charge persons who are only of a certain age is unsettling party leaders, especially those who have enjoyed power for decades. There is also the question of access. The Congress knows it will have to invest a lot of energy and resources to improve its tally in the 2017 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Manipur, even as it prepares for the bigger battle of the 2019 national election.

Down to a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2014 polls, from 206 in 2009, the party understands that its plan to revive the organisation across the states is closely linked to its performance in the next round of elections.

Uttar Pradesh

Under the circumstances, action has already begun in UP, the home state of the Gandhis, where the bets are high and the contest multi-cornered, with the ruling Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Bharatiya Janata Party in a tough contest. Rahul Gandhi has launched a foot march from Deoria in east UP to Delhi, aimed at mobilising the support of poor and of marginal farmers.

He ran a high-profile campaign ahead of the 2012 assembly polls in UP, but the Congress could bag only 28 seats in a house of 403. This was marginally up from 22 seats in the 2007 polls. The 2014 Lok Sabha result, in which only the two Gandhis could retain their seats in UP, were a shocker for them. The National Democratic Alliance had swept the polls with 73 of the 80 seats (including two of its Apna Dal allies); the SP had to be content with only five. And, the BSP failed to win even a single seat.

As a stronger and richer BJP eyes power in UP next year, the Congress is hoping to leave no stone unturned to reverse its fortunes in the politically crucial state. Before Rahul’s kisan yatra, Sonia Gandhi’s road show in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, was an open challenge to the BJP.

“Sonia’s road show was like a wake-up call for the SP, BSP and the BJP in UP. It had to be cut short because of her ill health,” said party veteran Anil Shastri, who belongs to UP. “We are doing exceedingly well in UP and Punjab. Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra has already started making waves and is unnerving the SP and BSP,” he claimed.

The Congress has been out of power in UP for 27 years and is making a big pitch to bounce back, on a cocktail of caste politics and promises of agriculture debt waiver worth Rs 49,000 crore and power rate reduction for farmers hit by high input costs and diminishing returns.

Wooing

Branding the Centre as a “suit-boot sarkar”, Rahul has been constantly nailing the message among the voters that the central government provided a Rs 1,14,000 crore waiver to corporate houses while neglecting farmers. There are about 22 million farm households in UP and 75 per cent are in the marginal category. This segment has suffered the most due to successive droughts, say party leaders.

The party is also trying to woo the Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim electorate, who used to be its traditional vote bank. To attract Brahmins, it had announced the former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit as its CM face in UP, while Imran Masood, accused of inflaming communal passions before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, has been elevated as the party’s state unit vice-president. There are about 10 per cent Brahmin and 20 per cent Muslim voters in UP.

Shastri stressed the need to strengthen the organisation in the states, saying professional help from strategist Prashant Kishor was being taken in UP and Punjab. This is a double-edged sword. Older Congressmen are irritated at having to take orders from someone who has never himself fought an election. They also see a sinister plot: Kishor, they argue, is (Bihar chief minister) Nitish Kumar’s right-hand man. He has a government position in Bihar, he lives in the CM’s residence. He has a lot invested in Nitish Kumar -- and it is his projection, not Gandhi’s, that Kishor is committed to.

Other states

Punjab is another poll-bound state, where the Congress is trying hard to grab power from the Akali-BJP combine which has ruled for 10 years. The Congress is banking heavily on state unit chief Amarinder Singh, face of the party in the northern state. “Amarinder is doing hard work on the ground. The Congress can provide a stable government. The people are angry with the Akali-BJP government,” said the general secretary in charge of Punjab affairs, Asha Kumari.

Gujarat, which will go to assembly polls towards the end of 2017, also provides hope to the Congress, trying to regroup and capitalise on rifts within the ruling BJP. In Uttarakhand, Chief Minister Harish Rawat is trying to consolidate his position and curb dissent, while announcing a slew of welfare schemes to woo voters. Congress insiders said Rawat is confident of a return to power next year, in the wake of its win in the recent political-legal battle when the Centre had dismissed his government, citing a constitutional breakdown in the form of a blocked state budget. The brighter side of that episode was that Rawat’s rivals, Harak Singh Rawat and Vijay Bahuguna, left the party to join the BJP with seven other MLAs.

In Goa, the Congress is trying to address organisational gaps, even as it prepares to list the shortcomings of the BJP government under Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar.

And, having learnt lessons in Uttarakhand, the All India Congress Committee has started addressing the concerns of Manipur’s dissenting lawmakers, who were demanding changes in the party. AICC General Secretary B K Hariprasad says the Congress will benefit in the assembly polls next year from the central government’s “poor performance” over the past two years. “Price rise is hitting them and there are no jobs, as the Make in India programme has not taken off,” he said.

Yet…

However, the overall sense of the average Congress worker is that the party is standing on sands that are shifting rapidly. Power equations within are changing; the leadership is undefined and opaque; the party’s mass base is moving away. A call for all non-Congress parties to unite in a rainbow coalition that embraces leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar cannot be ruled out. The question is what that will mean for the current leadership and who will be the one to give voice to the call.

-- With inputs from Virendra Singh Rawat in Lucknow

Amit Agnihotri
Source: source
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