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Bihar performance could fix Congress fund crunch

By Rashme Sehgal
November 25, 2015 10:36 IST
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Congress flagsWhile its performance in Bihar has boosted fund collections, corporate contributors are still waiting to see its performance in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal before committing funds to the Congress. Rashme Sehgal reports.

The Congress win in Bihar may have proved an unexpected booster to India's oldest political party, but with four state elections scheduled for 2016, the party has still to tide over its present cash crunch.

Corporate houses continue to steer clear of the Indian National Congress. Following the Congress having notched up 27 MLAs in Bihar, senior MPs have made overtures to some leading corporates, but as a Congress MP points out, "All leading companies continue to adopt a wait-and-watch policy and our performances in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which will be going to the polls next year, will prove the litmus test. We have to go all out to do well in these states."

Meanwhile, the desperately cash-starved party has turned to its members to start contributing on a monthly basis to ensure it can build up a large enough kitty to meet its day-to-day expenses.

Congress Treasurer Motilal Vora, who has been manning the Congress war chest for over four decades, admits he has written asking all MPs and MLAs to contribute regularly to the party.

"I have written to all our Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to donate one month of their salary to the party funds," says Vora. "They have no objections in doing as this has been our practice for over a decade now."

The party is reported to have collected several lakhs of rupees since Vora's letter was sent.

Vora believes that party members must help out during a financial crisis.

"What I have done is nothing new. Ten, eleven years ago, our party held a plenary session of the Congress Working Committee in Karnataka where a resolution for raising party funds was discussed. A committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Dr Manmohan Singh and it was decided that every MP, MLA, MLC and other office bearers would contribute one month's salary to the party fund. The same thing has been repeated now."

The situation a decade ago was very different from what it is today. The party fortunes were then on an ascendant. 2014 saw the party face its worst-ever parliamentary drubbing.

This caused much disgruntlement within the party, some of which has come out in the open but simmering over the selection of candidates and party appointees not being given money to fight these elections continues amongst the rank-and-file to this day.

Other instructions sent out to party members have been to ask every All India Congress Committee member to contribute Rs 600 annually to the party coffers while members of the Pradesh Congress Committee have been asked to contribute Rs 300 per year. While all party members were expected to contribute Rs 100 per annum, another Rs 250 contribution has now been sought to fill up the party coffers.

Other contingency measures that Vora has sought to put in place from October after consultations with Congress President Sonia Gandhi include the ending of Rs 15,000 per month fuel allowance being given to party general secretaries who are also members of Parliament.

All party secretaries have been told to travel by train as the Congress is not in a position to pay for air fares. In fact, they have been told to travel only when it is unavoidable.

These cuts have not gone down too well with party workers who point out that they are no match for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party which is flush with funds.

"We are not as financially sound as our BJP friends," admits Congress General Secretary Dr Shakeel Ahmed. "The entire corporate world is backing them. Our party has never worked as an agent for these big corporate houses."

Taking a jibe at Modi, Dr Ahmed says, "The extent to which corporates are controlling every aspect of our policy can be gauged from the fact that Sushma Swaraj can hardly be described as the minister of external affairs. Whenever Modi travels abroad, businessman Gautam Adani accompanies him. Sushma Swaraj has not accompanied him on a single trip so far. It is obvious the government is in the hands of corporate lobbies."

"The people of India do not vote for a party because of the financial muscle it enjoys," he adds. "Bihar has proved this once again."

But he concedes that elections have become a very expensive business.

"The entire mode of campaigning has changed especially in urban areas. The days of holding rallies loudspeaker in hand are over. Mass rallies are just one way to establish contact. Today, contestants have to use social media, television and print media as also do door-to-door campaigning. All this requires funds," Dr Ahmed points out.

The other major problem that the Congress confronts is the fact that the major states which helped provide the party with funds are now under BJP control. States like Maharashtra, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh played a significant part in providing money for political activity.

Losing these states has added to the party's woes. The Congress may be in power in nine states, but at the moment the only state from where it can hope to get some financial help is Karnataka. States like Himachal Pradesh or Assam are hardly in a position to contribute generously to the Congress kitty.

"We have always had a system by which MPs and MLAs have contributed to the party funds," says Congress General Secretary P C Chacko. "The central leadership has prepared a list of 150 leaders from all the states who will contribute Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) to the party."

"I have prepared a list of 100 people who are Delhi-based who will make a contribution of the same amount," adds Chacko.

While Chacko describes this as a one-time contribution, other Congress leaders point out that this will be an annual contribution in which the more well-to-do members have been asked to pay as much as Rs 500,000 annually.

Vora's letter sent out in September had asked for all contributions to reach the Congress headquarters by mid-October. Several Congress leaders have already paid up since then.

Vora refuses to give an exact figure about just how much money has been collected. "It is very difficult to say what the exact amount is," says the veteran Congressman and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister. "I would have to look up my books. I must clarify that nobody is compelled to contribute. It is a voluntary contribution and all payments are made by cheque."

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Rashme Sehgal