For the Congress to avoid a serious drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections, it needs to rebuild the party at the state and booth level, instead of clocking up PR budgets and giving inane interviews
Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

When Rahul Gandhi spoke to a TV Channel, he broke a record of sorts, on the number of people that he reached out to. Going by the figures that the channel put out, the interview created 50 crore potential impressions through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. More than 2.5 lakh tweets were spawned by the 90 minute-long interview. Besides the social media outreach, there were TV spots, hoardings, wall writings, newspaper and online inserts putting out Rahul Gandhi’s face, message and promises. But will this late show of publicity make Rahul Gandhi and the party stronger?

No one in the Congress would really claim that the party is doing any better after he took the stage on January 17 at the AICC session, assuming the responsibility of the person to lead the party to the parliament elections. His speech during the AICC session was quite excellent, by his own standards, but there is a manifest misreading of what really plagues the Congress party and why the party is in such doldrums. Overreliance on highly paid PR consultants and advertising companies reveals that the cure that’s being suggested for the party’s malaise is an uptick in communication. That the PR gimmick is foundering cannot
be overstated. 

Time and again, voluble TV anchors are wont to suggest that only if Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul spoke more to the media, their case would have be better served. The rise of Narendra Modi as the challenger to the Congress was largely credited to the PR agency, APCO worldwide, and it was stated that the Gandhis and the government could fight off the BJP’s challenge if they, too, invested
in publicity.

This attitude may just mean more funds for cash-strapped media companies, but an inability to articulate all the good work that a party has done is not a strong enough reason for explaining the embarrassing debacle the Congress experienced in the recent assembly elections. The Congress government in Delhi had overpublicized its achievements in the last ten years. The Sheila Dikshit government took credit for everything that moved in Delhi. Even the clean air we breathe—alas not anymore—had the government’s imprimatur it seemed. So pervasive was the government’s presence in public spaces that it was hauled up by the courts. So, surely in its defeat in Delhi, the inability to communicate was not the issue. Understandably, there were far more complex issues that eluded the consultants that provide the Congress leadership such simple solutions. Maybe it had something to do with the credibility of the communicator and what is feeding people’s perception about the government or the party leader. Congress leaders should introspect why the masses believe everything that Arvind Kejriwal or Narendra Modi says about the Congress government and not what Congress says about itself. Potent issues like the dubious role of Narendra Modi during the Gujarat riots, the snooping of a woman, have failed to get much traction. Similarly, Arvind Kejriwal’s opportunism and the manner in which he has been sustained by international funding agencies have not even caused the least bit of an impact on his fawning supporters.

The truth is that there is something really wrong with the way the party and the government is being run, and that has alienated not just the voting masses, but Congress party members and leadership. So Rahul Gandhi may have spoken about making systemic changes in the party and the government, but few would believe him. He is prone to repeating the success that he achieved by bringing in internal democracy to Youth Congress and NSUI, and how he wants to replicate this in the rest of the party. What is not spoken about often is that the elections have only contributed to strengthening the nepotistic tendencies within the youth organization, as those who are elected office bearers are sons and daughters of rich politicians. And these worthies have little stomach for a serious fight when they are actually confronted on a level playing field. Ask any Congressman what these “youth’ were doing in the assembly elections, and they would be hard put to explain. The truth is that big money holds the party in such a tight stranglehold that there is no space in it for those who are committed to the party’s core beliefs of secularism, inclusion and socialism. All those who occupy important positions in the party are not only wealthy, but arrogant, and spiteful of those who do not measure up in their reckonings. This manifest elitism has driven many of those who belonged to the Congress space towards Aam Admi Party, SP, BSP or the BJP.


Besides the corruption scandals that have erased all the positive things that the government of Manmohan Singh may have done, another issue that hurts the Congress party is that the tickets are sold to the highest bidder. Recently, there was an apology tendered by a Congress leader to party general secretary, Madhusudan Mistry, for making allegations that hinted of cash for a ticket. Mistry, considered to be close to Rahul Gandhi, sensed the involvement of senior Congress leaders in these allegations, and asked permission from the party leadership to fix those after him. Although Mistry may have filed a defamation case against the local Congress leader, no one really believes that the party is innocent of this charge of accepting money in ticket distribution. The moot question is—does Rahul Gandhi have the ability to change the party’s corrupt DNA?

This high powered publicity would be apparently working if it bends the minds of those who seem to be drifting away from the party. Take allies for instance. Its most vocal ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is suddenly concerned about its future. They do not seem to be convinced by Rahul’s campaign and Sharad Pawar, the NCP boss, is exploring life after Congress. Even if he stays back, he would like a larger role than what has come his way. Reliable sources in the Congress party suggest that he has offered Sonia Gandhi increased efforts in building a secular, democratic front by reaching out to like-minded parties.

Rahul Gandhi faces a big challenge to save the Congress party from a defeat that may not have visited them in the last 65 years. Doomsday scenarios show the Congress getting a low 50-60 seats if they are not able to quickly stitch alliances in different states. From South to North—every alliance seems to be coming apart. If the Congress gets stuck at low two digit numbers, then they will lose their ability to influence the formation of the next coalition government and, thus, be unable to stop Narendra Modi from coming to power. In fact, they may not even have the numbers to become the chief Opposition party.

What can Rahul really do in the next three months besides giving interviews to one channel or another and triggering some avoidable controversies? Old-timers say that he could do a few things: first throw out some ministers in the government that gave the party and the government a bad name and quickly build state-level alliances, including with the left parties. It will be better if he spends a part of his huge communication and PR budget to rebuild parties at the state and booth level. This is critical if he wants to make a fight out of the 2014 elections

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2014