Asked to comment on the appointment of Ahmed Patel as treasurer of the Congress on Tuesday, one of his party colleagues laughingly said, “This only means we are broke.”

It is an acknowledged fact that the Congress is staring at a severe cash crunch. And with the Lok Sabha polls coming up in less than a year and key elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh later this year, the party requires an experienced, credible and well-networked person to take on the crucial task of raising funds for the upcoming electoral challenge. It is for this reason that Congress president Rahul Gandhi has entrusted Patel with the responsibility of handling the party’s treasury. Patel held this portfolio 20 years ago – before he became political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, then the Congress president – and is believed to be the best man for this difficult job.

In his 16 years as the party chief’s most trusted aide, Patel cultivated an enviable circle of friends both within and outside the Congress. During this time, he controlled access to Sonia Gandhi and was the bridge between the party and the government when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power between 2004 and 2014. His contacts range from junior party workers to the movers and shakers of the corporate world. The party is hoping the friendships he forged will stand him in good stead now and help fill its empty coffers. The Congress is well aware that it will be extremely difficult to take on the cash-rich Bharatiya Janata Party if its financial crisis persists.

According to Congress leaders, Patel has been helping Motilal Vora – whom he replaced as treasurer – raise funds for several years now. “He was functioning as de facto treasurer but now it has been made official,” a Congress office-bearer said.

But will the dependable Patel succeed in pulling the Congress out of its financial crisis, given that the odds are stacked against it?

Electoral loss equals empty coffers

The party’s financial troubles began in the run-up to the 2014 general elections when it became increasingly clear that it was not coming back to power. Corporate houses and other donors that had till then lined up to support the Congress monetarily had a change of heart and did not think it wise to invest in a losing side. They all flocked to the BJP, which was perceived as the clear winner well before the votes were cast.

There has been no respite for the Congress since then. Its defeat in that election was followed by a string of losses in states such as Maharashtra, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, which further depleted its coffers. Given that political parties are dependent on state governments to finance their activities, the shrinking footprint of the Congress has also meant shrinking funds. At present, the Congress is in power in Punjab, Mizoram and the Union territory of Puducherry and is a coalition partner in the Karnataka government. In other words, its sources of income are extremely limited.

The party is, therefore, depending on influential leaders to raise funds for the upcoming elections. Take the case of Kamal Nath. In April, the Congress appointed him head of its Madhya Pradesh unit because of his ability to raise funds, among other reasons. It was for the same reason that it brought back Niranjan Patnaik as president of its unit in Odisha, where elections are due next year.

Congress and big business

Given its financial constraints, the Congress has had to resort to austerity measures to curb expenses while asking its members to increase their contributions to the party fund. Outgoing treasurer Motilal Vora put these measures in place over three years ago but there has been little improvement in the party’s financial condition.

Therefore, not only is Patel inheriting a virtually-bankrupt party, he could find himself handicapped in persuading corporate houses to part with their money for two reasons.

One, the Congress is yet to be accepted as a viable alternative to the current dispensation despite its efforts to cobble together an anti-BJP coalition of like-minded parties for next year’s Lok Sabha polls.

Two, industrialists are uncomfortable with Rahul Gandhi’s open declaration of war against big business. The main thrust of the Congress president’s campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to accuse him of favouring a handful of rich industrial houses and ignoring the interests of the poor, and to hold out an assurance that the Congress will take corrective measures if voted to power. Rahul Gandhi’s latest offensive against Modi on the Rafale aircraft deal with France is also centred on how the agreement benefited a friendly industrialist.

In the last few years, Rahul Gandhi’s description of the Modi government as a “suit boot ki sarkar” has forced the prime minister to make a conscious effort to shake off the “pro-rich” tag by coming up with a series of welfare schemes targeted at the rural poor, women and farmers. But afraid that he could end up alienating the corporate sector, Modi has made amends by reaching out to business magnates. In July, he said at a government-industry summit that he was not afraid to be seen in the company of industrialists as his intentions were “noble”. Recalling that even Mahatma Gandhi was not apologetic about taking help from industrialists, Modi went on to acknowledge their positive role in nation-building. This public declaration was seen as a message to the corporate sector that the Modi government is not averse to big business.

It is still to be seen if Congress attempts to corner the government on the Rafale deal will resonate with voters. But it could put off potential donors from the business world. In these circumstances, Patel will need all his persuasive skills to get industrial houses to part with their money. Clearly, the new Congress treasurer has a challenge on his hands.