As soon as the final phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh ended on March 8, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah went straight to Ahmedabad to begin preparations for the Gujarat Assembly elections scheduled for the year-end.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, flew abroad after the grand old party suffered a humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh, winning just seven seats in the 403-member Assembly, while the BJP bagged 312.
Although the Nehru-Gandhi scion had gone to be with his ailing mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was undergoing treatment in the United States, there were few takers for this explanation, given the rapidity with which Rahul Gandhi takes off on his travels.
More importantly, the actions of the two leaders have brought out the stark contrast between the two national parties. While the BJP is fired with enthusiasm and moving ahead with a killer instinct, the Congress is comatose, showing little or no will to undertake any measures for its revival.
BJP, party with a purpose
Constantly in election mode, the BJP is humming with activity as it plans and strategises for its next electoral battle. Shah leads from the front, the party’s victories in Uttar Pradesh and other states having neither slowed him down nor made him complacent. Having whipped the organisation into shape over the past three years, he has the party rank and file on a tight leash. An elaborate work schedule has been drawn up for party workers, who have been directed to fan out across the country to visit booths and interact with the rank and file.
“As soon as one election is over, the BJP president starts preparing for the next one… he wastes no time,” remarked a senior BJP leader.
After working at a frenetic pace for the recent Assembly polls, Shah has now chalked out a 95-day tour of the country for a contact programme with booth-level workers. While poll-bound states are obviously on his radar, the BJP president will focus on states where the party does not have a strong presence but has the potential to expand. The states earmarked for immediate attention include West Bengal, Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.
It was, therefore, no coincidence that Shah spent three days in West Bengal this week. He began his trip with a visit to Naxalbari, the home of Left-wing extremism, and held a meeting with party workers at Bhabanipur in Kolkata, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Assembly constituency.
The BJP is convinced it has more than a fair chance to put down roots in West Bengal. It is encouraged by the response to Ram Navmi celebrations organised by its cadre and the party’s second-place finish with a 31% vote share in the bye-election to the Contai South Assembly constituency, both in the first half of April.
Considering the string of humiliating defeats it has suffered in elections in the last three years, one would expect the Congress to display some urgency to identify its shortcomings, boost the morale of its cadre and conduct intensive internal meetings to revitalise the organisation, reinvent the party and work on a fresh strategy for forthcoming electoral battles. This is especially so as the BJP is expanding rapidly while also delivering on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India) by wresting power from the grand old party in states ruled by it, including Uttarakhand and Manipur last month. But the Congress appears to be in no hurry to take any remedial measures. While the party awaits word from the leadership, there is a deathly silence at the Congress’ Akbar Road headquarters in Delhi these days as most office-bearers have vanished.
There is periodic talk of introspection and an organisational revamp but nothing has come of it. After the Congress was reduced to a mere 44 seats in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the party president had set up a special committee under the chairmanship of former defence minister AK Antony to examine the reasons for the poor performance and to draw up a roadmap for the future. Nobody is aware of the contents of this report as it is yet to be discussed by the party.
When the Congress fared miserably in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, Rahul Gandhi held out the promise of “structural changes” in the party. Again, there has been no follow-up action after this initial announcement. The party’s highest decision-making body, the Congress working committee, is yet to be convened for a stock-taking exercise. As a result, the morale of the rank and file is at an all-time low, the party’s state units continue to be in the grip of intense factionalism, and there is a constant stream of desertions. The latest example is Delhi where the Congress lost its former state unit chief, Arvinder Singh Lovely, to the BJP on the eve of this week’s municipal elections, in which the saffron party notched up yet another impressive victory. Also, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit was known to be upset that her nominees were not given tickets. Her longstanding feud with Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken was out in the open when she declared, after the party’s poor showing in the civic body elections (it won 30 of the 270 seats), on Wednesday that she was not invited to campaign. Taking moral responsibility for the poll outcome, a disheartened Maken has stepped down as Delhi Congress chief.
“There is all-round uncertainty as everybody is waiting for the long-pending organisation changes,” said a member of the party’s working committee. “Most office-bearers have lost interest in their work as they are not sure if they will retain their jobs.” Congress members maintained that it is imperative that Rahul Gandhi put a new team in place at the earliest so they can get to work immediately, since the next general elections are only two years away. These changes were promised soon after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls but the wait continues.
While the BJP has a well-oiled party machinery in place and is working to a plan, the Congress is clearly directionless. This lack of clarity was evident in meetings Rahul Gandhi held with party leaders in recent weeks. Nobody is sure how the list of invitees was drawn up as the office-bearers were not involved in these discussions. Even those who attended the meetings came back confused as the party vice-president had nothing concrete to offer in terms of the way ahead. Taking a cue from the BJP, Rahul Gandhi spoke of a plan to send leaders to states to set up booth committees while he sought feedback from those present on the party organisation in their respective states. However, several leaders who were part of these discussions were not convinced with his proposal. They maintained that Rahul Gandhi should appoint effective state unit presidents and give them the responsibility of setting up the party organisation, including the booth committees. “Rahul Gandhi is approaching the problem from the wrong end,” remarked a senior party leader.
Though there is no doubt that the Congress needs an immediate overhaul, there is also growing realisation in the party that its core problem is Rahul Gandhi himself. The Congress vice-president has learnt few lessons in the three years the party has been in the Opposition. According to party members, his communication skills have not improved, his style of functioning has not changed and he continues to rely on non-political people. Above all, he lacks credibility and is not considered a serious political player. It is evident that there is little hope for the Congress unless Rahul Gandhi reinvents himself before he reinvents the party.