Fudged, Fumbled, Disconnected…
If Rahul Gandhi is a youth leader, how is he so totally disconnected from the thousands of young on the streets?
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Barely able to preserve its dignity after the assembly elections to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress leadership ran into another air pocket when it found crowds converging again at India Gate to demand justice against the perpetrators of the heinous gangrape in Delhi. The UPA government and the Congress leadership, in the last one year, has acquired the experience of facing crowds at India Gate, but like in the recent past — they fudged and fumbled, yet again.
Unlike the earlier agitation on corruption led by Anna Hazare, on the issue of rape of the unfortunate girl, the administration did not display any laxity in nabbing the accused. In a space of 48 hours, the alleged culprits were arrested. Unlike other cases where the police has the reputation of picking up anyone to satisfy the media and enraged masses, this time around technology and good forensics helped in zeroing in on them. However, this did not endear them to the milling crowd of angry, young people who were brutalised, tear gassed and caned by the police.
Worse, there was an unsavoury face-off between the Delhi government and police commissioner about who should manage law and order in the capital. As the protestors began to climb the Raisina Hill to reach out to the country’s top leadership, the administration began to give an impression of losing its nerve. Images of women protestors began to feed a view that the Congress-led government was insensitive and was disconnected from the masses.
Expectations from the political leadership to display compassion were met with dithering. Clearly, the government led by Manmohan Singh and the Congress top brass were told by its advisors to hold firm and not to submit to the demands of the protestors who were city slickers. What happened after that is history, but what comes through is that the Congress has been ill served by its bureaucratic advisors who have prospered at the expense of the party.
Counselling safety and caution first, these myopic advisors have encouraged the party leadership to resort to technical solutions to revive the fortunes of the Congress rather than engage in firm, principled, conscientious politics. The best example of such sage counsel has been the strategy followed by the Congress in taking on the challenge posed by BJP leader Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Instead of attacking him on his poor record at practicing inclusive economic and social policies, they chose to outsource their fight to a BJP breakaway party led by former chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Relying on the inexact science of psephology, they had hoped that Patel and his ilk would be able to hurt Modi, little realising that their strategy was not really providing an option to those people of Gujarat who were looking for change.
And there were many who had a bone to pick with Modi! They were not just the Muslims who had been disenfranchised after the barbaric treatment meted out to them during the Gujarat riots in 2002. There were a large mass of tribals, urban poor and farming community that had been ousted by the government in trying to appease subsidised crony capitalists. In Gujarat, this correspondent heard angry noises from many who resented the phenomenal riches of a handful, especially selected corporates who are constantly eulogising Modi. Congress did nothing to mobilise the disillusioned, disenchanted and the restless. One wonders why they, or the civil society groups associated with them, could not articulate issues that would have brought people out on the streets and put Modi and the BJP on the defensive.
On the contrary, criticism of Modi was discouraged as it was suggested that it could coalesce the majority community around him and polarise the elections. A central minister who was asked to campaign in Gujarat had to go through a briefing in Ahmedabad by the state Congress bosses, where she was told that she could not “attack Modi” in any way on the issue of communalism or ignoring the tribals etc. Exasperated by such demands, the central minister wondered “why were we invited to campaign” in the first place?
The only people that could talk tough were the Gandhis --- Sonia and Rahul; strangely, the advisors wanted them to corner all the credit if the Congress turned the corner. That has proved to be a fable of sorts since the family, especially Rahul, has abjectly failed to deliver any of the crucial states in the past. After the Gujarat defeat in 2002 there was a common belief that if the party had encouraged and built the profile of a state leader with mass appeal and grassroots connect, than the Congress could have got closer to defeating Modi. This simply did not happen. The Congress leadership, especially a certain powerful advisor to Sonia Gandhi, proved utterly inept, ineffective, without imagination.
Comparison was available in Himachal Pradesh where an old war horse in Virbhadra Singh, defying age, price rise and a toxic anti-corruption campaign against him, defeated BJP convincingly. Lessons from the Himachal victory were easily analysed: it is not the leadership of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi that helps or hurts in states, but an empowered, respected, connected regional leadership.
This simple message of regional leadership delivering in elections have proved in many elections, but the advisors of Sonia Gandhi have refused to acknowledge it by hinting that it would devalue the importance of the dynasty and the so called ‘high command’. They would want the ‘family brand’ of the Congress to enjoy precedence over individual, strong and charismatic leaders lest it becomes difficult to handle them later. The example of former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Raj Shekhar Reddy, is offered as someone who did not really bother about the Centre. After his death, his multi-millionaire son, Jagan, wanted to be treated like Rahul and given top slot -- an idea that was considered blasphemous by the central leadership. Jagan’s revolt and the grief that visited him due to CBI and income tax raids have hurt the Congress too! “Indeed, the Congress cannot return to power till it sorts out its mess in Andhra Pradesh. If it loses Andhra, it would be difficult to stop the BJP and its allies from coming to power,” a top left leader told this correspondent in Delhi.
The other state which should be a cause for a major worry is UP, where the Congress, surprisingly, got a windfall in the 2009 elections. This time around, the hopes of the party repeating that performance are negligible. The worry lines were visible during the recent delegate conference of the Congress in Lucknow where speaker after speaker castigated the central leadership for bad policies and ignoring ground realities. Some of them worried that the reliance on Rahul Gandhi to lead the campaign may not show results as he does not get the crowds. “In the 2012 assembly elections, Congress did not get the numbers as Rahul failed to enthuse party men or the masses,” claimed a delegate.
What is also worrisome for the Congress are rumours that BJP may field Narendra Modi from Lucknow or Varanasi to build up a wave in favour of the party and counter the sway of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in this caste-ridden state. The moot question is, does the Congress have a strategy to counter this, or that, strategy? Instead, there might be wishful thinking in its sinking ship that Modi might actually help polarise the electorate in its favour.
The Congress leadership is hoping that it can ride out organisational infirmities by giving freebies to the people. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the bounce in the Congress came via debt waiver and rural employment guarantee scheme (NAREGA). This time around, the government is proposing to introduce a cash transfer scheme and put money in the hands of the voters. The Congress leadership thinks that cash transfer can be a game changer. Their conviction is also based on the kind of role money has played in the last few elections.
The Election Commission has tried to fight the blizzard of money to curb the cash for vote phenomena in various elections, but without effect. In the last parliamentary elections, there were allegations that big money was paid to voters by incumbents all over the country. Scam money, too, allegedly helped strengthen the claims of those who were in power. Circumstances could be little different this
What does this mean then? Will Mulayam Singh Yadav, riding on an anti-caste quota gimmick, take advantage of the cash transfer scheme of the Center, or, can Congress claim ownership of this ambitious project? Ironically, Congress is drawing comfort from the experience of 2009 polls where voters could differentiate between a centrally sponsored scheme and the ones run by the state government.
However, ordinary Congressmen do not share the enthusiasm of the top leadership for technical solutions like cash transfer to revive the fortunes of the party. Talk to any congressman and he would draw up a litany of hundred reasons why the party would perform o abysmally in the next elections. Some, bizarrely, count the number of seats the party would get in the next elections on their finger tips. And surely, these numbers never go beyond double digit. They have contempt for the excessive reliance on Rahul and the likes of Nandan Nilekani or Sam Pitroda. They routinely aver that the high command stifles the growth of state units and never allows them to bloom.
Another state that proves the stasis is Karnataka, where the party is best placed to stage a comeback due to fratricidal bloodletting in the BJP. Here, too, there is lack of clarity about who should lead the charge to regain the state. An old SM Krishna was disengaged from the centre to provide leadership in Bangalore; last seen he was still playing tennis from the baseline, when there is actually a desperate need for someone to go to the net and score a point.
Problems in the party are deepened by the inability of Sonia Gandhi to bring about serious and effective organisational changes. For quite a while the reshuffle was anticipated to bring in clarity in the way the Congress should conduct itself in the coming elections. While it has been announced that Rahul Gandhi would lead the campaign for re-election in 2014, imaginative and practical steps are needed to align the party to his vision. This has not been taken.
Rahul had earlier expressed dissatisfaction at the way the party was animated by the old order and decided to repose greater faith in the Youth Congress. His strategy failed to pay any dividends when he tried to use the youth Congress and civil society activists to step up his campaign in UP. The loss in UP rattled him so badly that party sources claim he had a rethink on his strategy. Now, it is learnt, that he and his mother are on the same page about more minimalist methods to usher change in the grand old party.
Rahul expected assertiveness in organisational affairs was also meant to sort out the question -- who after Manmohan Singh? To the distress of a clueless party, even this simple question is still unanswered. Many Congress leaders have spoken in the public domain that till this important issue of succession is not sorted out, the party would continue to flounder everywhere.
Indeed, the current upsurge of emotion on the gangrape of a woman, and nation-wide mourning and protests, seemed to have completely bypassed the political unconscious of the Congress leadership. The country is witnessing unprecedented unrest all over, but the Congress bureaucracy, obsessed with market fundamentalism, seem unconcerned and untouched. If Rahul is a youth leader, how is he so totally disconnected from the thousands of young on the streets? This was a question asked time and again at India Gate and Jantar Mantar.