Congress: A Party in Shambles
Like Nero who played the lyre while Rome burnt, Rahul Gandhi is blissfully oblivious to the torpor and rot that have gripped the Congress
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Barely an hour into the counting of votes in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, it became clear that there would be no repeat of the Bihar assembly elections of 2015. As the BJP’s tally rose rapidly, the numbers of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Congress refused to move, like a stillborn baby. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extremely muscular campaign had divined a result that was unimaginable for all those who thought his decision to demonetise high value currency would destroy him electorally. It didn’t! On the contrary, it short-circuited the ambitions of not just the regional parties, the BSP and SP, but also the Congress that had been strenuously trying to revive its fortunes in this strategically important state. The loss in UP is proving to be a cruel blow for the Congress and it’s peripatetic Vice President Rahul Gandhi. Under tremendous pressure to show results, Gandhi had tied up with the young SP leader, Akhilesh Yadav, whose estrangement with his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his uncle, Shivpal Yadav, lent him an opportunity to explore an alliance with a party that the Samajwadi loyalists of all hues have traditionally opposed. The fact that the alliance came to grief is not just a manifestation of the impossibility of the Congress and Socialists in working together, but also its inability to stand up to the forces unleashed by the BJP. In other words, it was not just the anti-incumbency factor against the government of Akhilesh, who tried to reinvent himself as a vikas purush (development man), but also the formidable social coalition and financial resources that BJP President Amit Shah put together that proved to be too much for them.
The BJP not only had the biggest war chest, but also the politics that kindled hope in those castes and communities that were feeling disenfranchised due to the SP’s Muslim-Yadav coalition that had ruled UP for five years or that of Mayawati who used her Dalit base as the fulcrum of her politics. Simply put, the BJP’s win was a strong upper caste assertion camouflaged by aggressive Hindu consolidation to snatch power away from a section of backward and scheduled castes that had aligned themselves with the minorities. In UP and perhaps Bihar the Other Backward Caste (OBC) and Scheduled Caste (SC) alliance with the minorities had served as a bulwark against religious fascism, which crumbled under the onslaught of Modi and Shah’s campaign. The BJP government’s decision to demonetise high currency notes left the SP, BSP and the Congress short on funds and morale. Their campaign succeeded in showing that the Akhilesh government was partisan towards its support base comprising of Muslims and Yadavs. The freebies that the young SP leader used to distribute were also guided by the caste of an individual. Modi and Shah dived deep into this grievance of the majority community to ask questions about why more land was allotted for graveyards and not for cremation grounds. They managed to ferret out budgetary details about this manifest case of discrimination by the SP government on matters of how much land was required to dispose of the dead from different communities. It was all too noisy and low, but it helped combust old social alliances that afforded political spaces to the minorities. To further show their disgust for “minorityism”, the BJP gave no ticket to any Muslim to contest any of the 403 assembly seats even though Muslims comprise 20 percent of the state’s population.
Crunching of poll data will show that the BJP managed to prise open the coalition of the backwards of the SP and that of the dalits of the BSP. What is also visible is the big upper-caste mobilisation in favor of the BJP. In terms of winners from the party, there are 44 percent that belong to the upper caste with rest of the castes distributed evenly among the 312 victors.
The Congress, that has been out of power in UP for 28 years was trying to create a meta-narrative to slice through this caste-riven state. It found, in the suffering of farmers and later the chaos caused by demonetisation a worthy cause to take up and build a social coalition that transcended castes. Rahul, always a reluctant suitor, was mobilised by their consultant Prashant Kishor to travel to Eastern UP and converse with farmers in a series of “khat sabhas”. They were partially successful, but lost crowds and relevance when the army conducted surgical strikes across the border into Pakistan. In the state, there was quiet fascination for Modi and his ability to fashion an attack so meticulous and so bold. Some conspiracy theorists are of the view that the timing of the surgical strike was to steal the thunder of Priyanka Gandhi who was on the threshold of making the much awaited plunge into the hurly-burly of national politics.
The caucus that surrounds the Congress president prevailed upon Rahul. Interestingly, some of them do their bit to stoke the BJP propaganda about Rahul being an incompetent leader. Many of these Congressmen also happily suggest, much to his reported discomfort that his sister Priyanka would be a better bet than him. Informed sources claim that Rahul had responded to this suggestion with incredulity. He is believed to have asserted that all his political work would go down the tube if Priyanka was pitchforked into the campaign. There was strong logic to his argument, but the truth is that he had lost trust and confidence of many people in his party
The surgical strike and its benefits for the BJP compelled the Congress and its consultant to revisit the drawing board. While they were still at it, Modi shifted the goalpost again.
On November 8, a day before Donald Trump was elected, Modi announced demonetisation of high-value currency notes. He managed to weave a narrative that suggested that the move was meant to pauperise the corrupt and subsequently redistribute the black money amongst the poor. For the poor the promise of Rs.15 lakh in their accounts suddenly seemed real. Besides, it kindled a feeling of Schadenfreude- joy at someone else’s grief-amongst the poor who gullibly believed that the rich had to stand in bank queues too, like them, to withdraw their own money.
Demonetisation may have provided content for their narrative, but it hurt the Congress party more than others. Financial distress compelled it to look for an ally to contest the polls and jettison the plan to fight alone. An alliance was meant to sort out problems of relevance, support base and even funds. Even Congressmen who look for short cuts discouraged Rahul Gandhi from fighting the election alone. The logic of Bihar, where the Congress performed quite well was forwarded to nip any such suggestions in the bud.
As has happened in the past, the caucus that surrounds the Congress president prevailed upon Rahul. Interestingly, some of them do their bit to stoke the BJP propaganda about Rahul being an incompetent leader. Many of these Congressmen also happily suggest, much to his reported discomfort that his sister Priyanka would be a better bet than him. Informed sources claim that Rahul had responded to this suggestion with incredulity. He is believed to have asserted that all his political work would go down the tube if Priyanka was pitchforked into the campaign. There was strong logic to his argument, but the truth is that he had lost trust and confidence of many people in his party.
In UP, Priyanka did step in to negotiate a deal with Akhilesh to fight the elections together after he had split with his father and his uncle. This was seen as a wise move as the SP had been able to remove the taint of criminality after this ‘supposed’ purge. It seems that it was not enough.The Congress got 105 seats to contest- far more than they really deserved. The SP chose to be magnanimous, as it believed that this alliance would be an ideal model for the 2019 parliament elections. On paper and even on TV, the alliance looked good. Two young men promising a bright future for troubled and angry masses seemed a good selling point, but for a host of reasons it did not work. The Congress candidates performed abysmally. To many it seemed as if the alliance got hobbled precisely because of them. Even BJP supporters commented that a weak Congress had hurt Akhilesh.
The minorities who were supposed to be the fulcrum of this alliance did not lend their entire weight to it. A portion of their vote went to the Bahujan Samaj Party. Its supremo Mayawati has alleged that the BJP’s electoral victory was stolen through EVM fraud. Even Akhilesh has directed his supporters to gather evidence about EVM tampering. The Congress has kept quiet on the issue, but some of their candidates that have lost the polls are intrigued as to why the minorities did not vote for them.
A setback in the UP assembly polls is a major worry for a party that hopes to return to power at the centre in 2019. Without a strategy to wrest the country’s most populous state, the Congress would not have a chance in hell to come close to a winning number. What should chasten the party and its leadership further is that the option of allying with other like-minded secular parties does not seem to pay any dividends- if BJP’s popularity does not wane. Almost magically, the BJP has been able to preserve the solid support that it got in the 2014 parliamentary polls.
Congressmen are worried that from now until 2019, it’s unlikely that their circumstances will change at all. Their leader, who is still cramped by the presence of his mother and party president, Sonia Gandhi, just cannot reinvent himself in two years time. During the election campaign in UP, Rahul appeared like a junior partner to Akhilesh, who was more assertive and displayed better command over the language.
A setback in the UP assembly polls is a major worry for a party that hopes to return to power at the centre in 2019. Without a strategy to wrest the country’s most populous state, the Congress would not have a chance in hell to come close to a winning number. What should chasten the party and its leadership further is that the option of allying with other like-minded secular parties does not seem to pay any dividends- if BJP’s popularity does not wane. Almost magically, the BJP has been able to preserve the solid support that it got in the 2014 parliamentary polls
Though the Congress did well in Punjab, Manipur and Goa, it failed miserably in Uttarakhand. What compounded the party’s misery was that it did not display good reflexes to cobble together a coalition to form governments in Goa and Manipur. In both these states, friendly and pliant Governors helped the BJP. The Congress challenged the Goa Governor’s decision in the Supreme Court, but it was a case of too little too late.
The Congress footprint is now confined to Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka- states where elections will take place by 2018. The way the Congress is going, it will be a miracle if it can save itself from a rampaging BJP.
Many Congressmen have been demanding a “ surgery” in the party to rejuvenate its fortunes. A senior Congress leader has said that the rings that surround the planet Saturn need to be obliterated- hinting at the sycophantic caucus that surrounds the party leadership.
With Sonia’s health deteriorating further, there is a major crisis staring at the party. Although Rahul Gandhi’s succession is not in doubt, there is grave anxiety within the party about his competence and his ability to connect with the party men. And then there is his tendency to disappear when most needed. When there was a need to show speed and purpose in Goa and Manipur, Rahul was unavailable. Earlier, too, he had gone on a long vacation. The question partymen and even ordinary citizens- who don’t want to vote for the BJP- are asking is why they should indulge someone who is not serious about running the party. Since the 2014 electoral debacle, there has been no AICC session and no serious introspection about what went really went wrong. Most Congress leaders are sitting at home wondering whether the party is still alive and active- and that is not a good sign for a party which wants to return to power in 2019.