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Can Rahul replicate Sonia's 2004 feat?

By Anita Katyal
May 26, 2014 08:28 IST
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Can the Congress vice-president listen to the voices of dissension in the party and change his outlook and style of functioning? In other words, can the party depend on Rahul to bring them back to power, muses Anita Katyal

When questioned about the way ahead after the Congress’s humiliating defeat in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls, a senior leader had smilingly remarked that the party followed a set pattern in such situations: call a meeting of the party’s working committee, set up a committee to introspect the reasons for the rout, hold a chintan shivir and organise an All India Congress Committee session.

Following up on past precedents, Congress president Sonia Gandhi promptly called a meeting of the party’s working committee a few days after the declaration of the Lok Sabha results for a preliminary stock-taking exercise.

It is a different matter that instead of doing some serious soul-searching, the meeting became yet another occasion for party leaders to demonstrate their undying loyalty to Sonia and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi after they offered to resign from their posts.

While a chintan shivir and AICC session are very much on the cards, there are serious doubts that Sonia will constitute a committee, under the chairmanship of a senior leader, to analyse the reasons for the party’s crushing defeat and suggest remedial measures.

Congress sources told that Sonia is hesitant to set up such a panel in her endeavor to protect and insulate party vice president Rahul Gandhi from being criticised or held responsible for the party’s defeat. There is always a possibility that if there is a serious introspection, it will cite Rahul’s poor leadership as the key reason for the party’s electoral wipe-out.

Although Sonia has told party members not to bicker publicly or indulge in an unnecessary blame game, it has not stopped disgruntled leaders from hitting out at each other. Ever since the elections results came in, there have been loud murmurs in the party questioning the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s ability to lead the party.

While his key advisors are being openly criticised for the party’s insipid election campaign, the real  target is Rahul, whose competence and credibility are now in serious doubt.

While some kind of an introspection has been promised by Sonia, (she said as much in her speech at the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting on Saturday), past experience in this regard has not been particularly encouraging.

For instance, the Congress had set up a committee under the leadership of party veteran A K Antony in 1999 after the party’s tally sunk to its lowest -- 114 Lok Sabha seats -- to pinpoint the reasons for its defeat and outline fresh measures to address the party’s shortcomings.

The Antony committee has been the party’s best-kept secret. Although the decision to such an introspection panel was taken by the Congress Working Committee, its contents were not shared with its members.

Among a host of reasons given by the Antony committee for the party’s electoral reverses, Sonia’s foreign origins and her leadership were also said to have been mentioned as among the causes. Little wonder then that the report was kept under wraps.

The Antony committee report was prepared after on the basis of written submissions it had sought from party members. Although loyalty to the party’s First Family must have prevented many from speaking out openly, several did dare to mention that the party paid the price on account of Sonia’s foreign origins.

If a similar exercise is undertaken, Rahul’s weak leadership could well be cited as among the reasons for its latest drubbing.

While the Antony committee avoided the issue of Sonia’s foreign origins, it did make a set of 20 recommendations, chief among them was to encourage greater inner-party democracy, revamping of party structures and involvement of state and district units in the selection of candidates.

It was further suggested that candidates be named at least three months before elections so that they have sufficient time to put their team in place, that preparations for the elections should begin early and electoral strategies be put in place well in advance.

In addition, the report said this practice of passing one-line resolutions entrusting the Congress president to appoint state leaders be dispensed with. The report further said that the party should not give tickets to candidates facing corruption charges and should avoid giving tickets to relatives of leaders unless winnability is assured.

Needless to say, these recommendations were forgotten and the Antony committee report was put away in a locked safe.

Ironically, Sonia again appointed Antony to head a similar panel in 2008 after the Congress lost in Karnataka and in 2012 when the party was defeated in the Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab assembly polls. Once again, these reports trotted out the same recommendations and the party ignored these and continued to make the same mistakes.

Given Sonia’s penchant for constituting committees, she had set up another one in 2003 under the chairmanship of then senior party leader Pranab Mukherjee to examine the reasons for the party’s loss in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly polls and to suggest a roadmap for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

The recommendations made by this panel are among the rare ones on which the party actually saw some action. The Mukherjee committee had suggested that the party follow-up on its Shimla Deceleration and stitch up alliances with “like-minded secular and progressive forces”.

It also stated that Sonia should personally take the initiative in reaching out to potential alliance leaders in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Sonia had subsequently reached out to several allies including Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, who had left Congress on account of her foreign origins. The rest, as they say, is history.

On her part, Sonia made a conscious effort to use her stint in the opposition to learn the ropes, get a firm grip on the party organisation and galvanise the cadres for the electoral battle ahead.

Now that the party has been consigned to the opposition benches after enjoying 10 years in government, the question which Congress cadres are asking privately is: Can Rahul replicate Sonia’s feat? Will he listen to the voices of dissension in the party and change his outlook and style of functioning? In other words, can the party depend on Rahul to bring them back to power. At present, it appears to be a tall order.

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