DISADVANTAGE Congress

The assembly elections results are evidence that the national mood is against Congress. So what's wrong with the grand old party?

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

The impact of the drubbing the Congress received in UP and other states was felt immediately on the UPA government. What was expected and predicted did not lessen the pain of defeat, nor prepare the Congress leadership for what was to come. And ritualistic bad news and problems for Congress-led UPA government – on hold due to staggered assembly elections – began to arrive in inevitable waves.

What needs to be seen is not whether the fledgling UPA dispensation will survive, which may bleed and still complete its term; but what will happen to the Congress which suddenly finds that Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, just don't have the electoral appeal to bring the party back to power in 2014?

Worse, the pathetic performance of the government evidenced by recent happenings is making the task of revival of the grand old party that much more difficult. First, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to face the ignominy and humiliation of being told off by ally Trinamool Congress's leader Mamata Banerjee to sack railway minister Dinesh Trivedi for daring to present the railway budget without informing her. Trivedi, a TMC MP, was unceremoniously jettisoned from the cabinet, barely a few days after he read out his budget in Parliament. Singh's failure to stand up to a mercurial Mamata reinforced the view that a weak, bumbling, unimaginative Congress just did not have the numbers or will to take on anyone. Even its efforts to win enough seats in UP to be part of a winning alliance in the state with Samajwadi Party (SP), and leverage its performance to bring stability at the Centre, proved grossly misplaced.

Congress could not replace ally A with new ally B, without being subjected to new pressures. The problem is not with numbers, but with party's growing emaciation and denudation of support all over the country – a fact that has not escaped the allies.

Expectedly, Anna Hazare, who contributed in tarring the image of the Congress-led regime on corruption, stepped out again with his merry band of dwindling supporters to control the national discourse by harping on Lokpal bill. Earlier, his huge hyperbole in Mumbai fizzled out in a whimper, proving that Team Anna is fast losing credibility. On a one day fast at Jantar Mantar, a megalomaniac Hazare and his arrogant Sancho Panza, Arvind Kejriwal, demanded from the government to file FIRs against 14 allegedly "corrupt" Union ministers before August this year. True to his blackmailing wont, Hazare threatened a nation-wide agitation if their demands are not met.

The government's troubles have been exacerbated by Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh, who seems consumed by vengeance over the manner in which his demand for correcting his birth date was stymied by powerful vested interests. Singh not only claimed that he had been offered a bribe by a former general, who was lobbying for an Indian company, he also detonated another bombshell when he allegedly leaked a letter that he wrote to the PM some time ago. In the letter, Singh talked of lack of defence preparedness, and how tanks, air defence and other aspects of national security had disturbing infirmities. While the General has every right to bring these gaps to the notice of the PM, the letter's leakage has been graceless and subversive – it will singularly enlighten (and entertain) the nation's enemies.

This is not all. In between, there was another leakage in the media about a CAG report that showed presumptive loss of Rs 10 lakh crore in the allotment of coal blocks. If there was a scandal to bury a government, then this was it. This is precisely because the PM was handling the coal ministry when the blocks were given away for a song to cronies. The government managed to earn some relief in what was quickly dubbed by the visual media as 'coalgate'; CAG later clarified that the findings were not from the final report. It is, however, unlikely that the CAG will depart too far from this fantastic figure when the final report is tabled on the floor of the House.

Ahmed Patel and Digvijay Singh are openly blamed for the mess the party is in

The PM and his cabinet colleagues, in recent times, have shown transparent professional and political incompetence in dealing with CAG reports. Earlier, it allowed the CAG to probe the sale of telecom spectrum, where CAG totted up a gigantic figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore as the huge loss, and allowed it to look into policy issues, giving an opportunity to the
courts to push the envelop. Manmohan Singh's government is still paying the price of displaying stark weakness on this issue.

This single act has not only devastated the robust telecom industry, it threatens to mire the government in difficult arbitration with foreign companies after the Supreme Court – claiming malafide allotment of spectrum – cancelled 127 licenses. Companies like Norway's Telenor and Russia's Sistema are invoking bilateral agreements to settle these issues. The mishandling of the telecom sector has made a thousand cuts on the credibility of this government and the PM.

Indeed, now, no one believes in the PM's clean reputation or his integrity. "How can PM claim to be clean when his colleagues are making money under his watch?" is the popular refrain.

All the colossal scams in the history of independent India have taken place ever since Manmohan Singh came to power. "He is drinking poison so that the Congress leadership does not get hurt," claims a Singh supporter. However, it is not just the scams that are hurting the Congress; the perception of policy paralysis seems to have gripped the government.

A weak PM finds it difficult to take any resolute decision. Nearly all the major ministries are in the throes of indecision. The responsibility to govern seems to have been handed over to the courts. There are 10 core ministries that have come to a standstill. Government sources claim that there is not enough coal for power houses, power for agriculture and industry, fertilizers for the next crop.

The PM and his cabinet colleagues have shown professional and political incompetence in dealing with CAG reports

The mining sector has come to a standstill due to serious environmental concerns; the petroleum sector is languishing due to the paranoia of a minister who refuses to believe anyone and has asked the Intelligence Bureau to keep track of his officers; the commerce ministry cannot get its figures right about its exports. The list of non-functioning ministers and their departments is endless. Officers complain that there is total lack of will, commitment or direction. Everything is in stagnant flux.

Such an impression is clearly contradicting a view long held by many in India that Congress is the only party that can govern the country. It was this reason that brought the party of the freedom struggle back to power again and again. Congress returned to power in 1980, 1991 and 2004 after different 'Janata' (and Sangh Parivar) avatars failed to earn respect from the voting masses.

After Congress's sensational victory in 2009, it became a foregone conclusion that with BJP in disarray, it would come back with a bigger mandate in 2014; but nothing like this seems to be happening now. The best laid plans seem to lying in the dust heap of history.

One of the most disturbing news for Congress in the recent assembly elections has been its sorry performance in the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies of UP. These two Parliament constituencies have been the pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family, perhaps the few 'safe' seats in the country. The assembly results show that these constituencies may have fallen off from the safe category.

In a NDTV documentary on the Congress debacle in what are called 'VIP' constituencies of UP, it became apparent that the myth about the Gandhi family's invincibility has been decisively shattered. Ordinary people trashed the 'family' and questioned their contribution all these years. "Rahul comes to the guest house and does not go anywhere. Priyanka comes once in five years," were some of the remarks heard in this film.

‘Individuals who advise Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have grievously hurt the party’ 

These voices were heard even before votes were cast, but the impossible hype which Congress spin doctors had created drowned the bitter reality. Through a publicity blitz an impression was created that Congress was going to achieve a breakthrough in UP from where it was thrown out of power 22 years ago, that it would be in a position to win in excess of 100 assembly seats – a repetition of its famous victory in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Rahul's robust campaign, according to the spiel, was going to make a remarkable difference in its fortunes. Congress leaders like Digvijay Singh and Shriprakash Jaiswal began to believe in their own make-believe dream sequence, predicting absurd numbers in their favour.

What was forgotten was that after 2009, Congress's image and fortunes had plummeted embarrassingly. In 22 bye-elections since 2009, it has won only one solitary seat. In the rest, it lost its deposit. Also, sustained price rise, which hits the poor and middle class the most, and relentless corruption scandals have seriously hurt the party; it failed to present itself as a positive alternative to regional parties like SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

People of Punjab cared two hoots that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, is PM; they still chose to vote against his party

Expectedly, the party lost heavily. It showed a dismal increase in seats from 22 to 28, and voting percentage from 8 to 12 per cent. It sounds bizarre, but insiders allege that a whopping amount of Rs 800 crore was spent in a campaign that not only yielded so little, but whose sorry outcome has also dampened the party's prospects in the parliamentary elections. In Punjab, Congress was expecting a win, but came to grief. People of Punjab cared two hoots that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, is PM; they still chose to vote against his party. In Uttarakhand, a squabbling Congress managed to come to power with the help of independents and BSP MLAs. Goa was expected to be rough; expectedly, it was routed. Its chief minister's links with the mining mafia, and corrupt family fiefdoms as candidates, did not help matters.

The national trend is that Congress is not reviving despite the best efforts of Rahul Gandhi. His resolve to recapture its old glory when it came to power on its own has failed to show results. In Tamil Nadu, he tried to fight the assembly elections alone – he was overruled by his mother. That did not change its fortunes. DMK blamed it for the alliance's defeat. In most seats, they lost.

Earlier in Bihar too, Congress displayed arrogance. It dumped old allies like Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, believing in the hype of self-glory. It was shamed when it won only four assembly seats.

In Assam and Manipur, it may have bucked the trend and won in the assembly elections, but the national mood does not augur well. Recently, a weekly magazine did a survey about how the country would vote if elections were held now; the conclusion was that Congress would lose 100 seats from its 2009 tally, and may win only 110 parliamentary seats. This survey was conducted a month before the recent polls, but the assembly elections confirm this mood. In fact, after the assembly results, they may be in the sub-100 zone. For the Congress, the only reason of cheer is that a faction-ridden BJP in disarray is, perhaps, in a worse shape.

So What's going wrong with Congress? Plenty. Ask any Congress leader. First, he will look over his shoulder to check if there is a party person in earshot distance. Then, he would take off and tell how the party has been hijacked by a coterie. "Individuals who advise Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have grievously hurt the party," he would say. Ahmed Patel and Digvijay Singh are openly blamed for the mess the party is in.

After the recent results, Sonia Gandhi promised introspection. She blamed faulty candidate selection for the defeats. This explanation is hogwash, as Congress insiders will tell you. (How come she missed the dubious family fiefdoms, corrupt candidates and CM's mining mafia links in Goa, for instance?)

Most candidates were selected by the leadership; for many, the ground conditions were starkly unfavourable. Things became worse when Rahul failed to give a direction to the campaign, while politicians like Salman Khurshid created unnecessary controversy on the quota issue among backward Muslims. This announcement, which people attribute to the party high command, consolidated Muslims around the SP. "Islam is an egalitarian religion. Why did they try to divide it on caste lines?" asked a party leader. In his view, the minorities are upset with the way Congress has gone about the quota controversy.

A weak PM finds it difficult to take any resolute decision. All major ministries are in the throes of indecision

Besides the organisational infirmities and poor performance of the central government, what is hurting Congress now is the failing health of Sonia Gandhi. Party sources claim that she is no longer inclined to campaign as vigorously as she did earlier and is increasingly giving more space to Rahul. There is appreciation for Rahul's stamina and sincerity, but Congress insiders are upset that he has ignored veteran leaders and
party structures.

The other conjecture is that after the recent defeats, if Rahul is catapulted to the PM's chair, the opposition might really gun for him, knowing that he is on a weak wicket. With Manmohan Singh around instead, they might prefer the status quo, however hopeless it might be for Congress. Either way, it's Disadvantage Congress.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2012