A week after the Congress was routed in the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly election and failed to form governments in Goa and Manipur despite emerging as the single largest party in both these states, the party remains in a state of shock. The overriding mood in the party these days is one of sheer despair, anger, frustration and helplessness.
Faced with a shrinking geographical footprint and an uncertain future, demoralised Congress members are still coming to terms with the harsh reality that the grand old party, which dominated the country’s political landscape for nearly six decades, has been reduced to a marginal player. To make matters worse, it appears to have lost the will to fight back as there is an uneasy feeling that these polls may well mark the beginning of the end.
There is a growing view in the Congress that vice-president Rahul Gandhi does not have the capability to revive and re-invent the party, but nobody is willing to say so openly. Helpless Congress members privately admit Gandhi is not up to the challenge posed by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party but, at the same time, maintain despondently that they have no option but to continue with the Nehru-Gandhi scion to lead the party, despite all his failings.
While several senior leaders such as Kishore Chandra Deo and Satyavrat Chaturvedi have voiced their frustration publicly, there are numerous others who are seething silently.
“You are talking about the party but where is the party… today it is a mere collection of individuals,” said one former minister.
Commenting on the present state of affairs in the Congress, another former minister maintained, “Four factors are important for a party to succeed – leadership, organisation, articulation and money. The Congress has none.”
Though party leaders are wary of naming Rahul Gandhi in this context, they reluctantly admit that he pales in comparison with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose powerful oratory and image as a strong decisive leader put him streets ahead of any competition. Congress insiders said that besides a weak leadership, the party organisation in the states has virtually collapsed because no effort has been made over the years to strengthen it at the village and district levels.
The recent Assembly polls showed up the contrast in the Congress and the BJP, which has succeeded in expanding and building its organisation in states where it had no presence three years ago. On the other hand, the Congress has failed to build effective state leaders who could be entrusted with this task. While the comparatively younger and power-hungry BJP worked hard in the field, the older, lazy grand old party just watched helplessly. Congress insiders admit that they have become disconnected from the people as they failed to articulate their problems and grievances.
When the Congress suffered a crushing defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and subsequently lost a string of Assembly polls, the leadership declared that the party would introspect on the reasons for this debacle and revamp the organisation to be able to meet the expectations of the people. Nothing happened. Three years later, commenting on the party’s performance in the state polls that concluded with the results last Saturday, Gandhi reiterated that the party needs to “make structural and organisational changes”. This prompted Satyavrat Chaturvedi, the Congress’ chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, to declare in frustration, “What is the point of raising this issue now? It was not done when it should have happened.”
Even younger party leaders, known to be close to Gandhi and who genuinely believe he should be elevated as Congress chief at the earliest, are bemoaning the status quo in the party. “Whether right or wrong… some action must be initiated to deal with the present situation,” said a first-time Lok Sabha MP. “A leader must be seen to be taking action.”
While Congress leaders do not directly attack Gandhi, they repeatedly point fingers at his “non-political” team of advisors who, according to them, are far removed from ground realities.
Congress general secretary Madhusudan Mistry maintained that going in for structural changes would not solve the problem. “What is more important is the individuals who are in charge of these structures,” he said. Although he did not go as far as former Union minister Kishore Chandra Deo in declaring that Gandhi should get rid of “a dozen people around him”, Mistry stressed that it was critical to pick the right people for the right job.
Alliances can wait, for now
Even as Congress leaders are uncertain about the party’s future, party spokesperson CP Joshi’s statement at the daily press briefing on Thursday, that the Congress would make alliances in the states to take on the BJP, has added to the confusion within the party. In fact, Joshi’s remark that the party could even consider a tie-up with the Shiv Sena, currently the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, has angered party members. They wondered how Joshi could have said as much when Gandhi had declared only two days ago that the “Congress has an ideological fight with the BJP” that will continue. In any case, furious Congress leaders said, these remarks on possible future alliances and coalitions are premature as the party is yet to introspect on the Assembly election results and discuss its future strategy.
“What kind of a message are we sending our workers by talking about alliances barely a week after the election results… does this mean they should stop working?” asked a former minister. While there is all-round agreement that the Congress cannot take on the BJP single-handedly and will have to join hands with other Opposition parties, it has to first put its house in order. “We have to strengthen ourselves first… we cannot resort to short cuts all the time,” said a senior Congress office-bearer.
Moreover, it was pointed out, alliances should be forged on the basis of common programmes and policies and not merely to keep out the BJP. Such declarations, especially personalised attacks against Narendra Modi, end up strengthening the BJP, especially the prime minister. This was evident during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls when a large section of voters was put off by the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance as they felt it was finalised merely to target Modi. “We need to talk about our policies and what we have to offer to the people,” said a senior Congress leader.