Welcome to the Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a weekly newsletter to help guide you through India’s complex political landscape. The 17th Lok Sabha properly gets going from this week, after all the oath-taking and initial speeches, so there will be plenty to look at. But first we turn our attention to a perennial subject: infighting and confusion within the Congress.
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The Big Story: Infinity war
A few weeks ago, we wondered whether the Congress would resolve some of its leadership questions in time for the start of the Parliament session. At the time, the party seemed to be in a complete shambles. Though the results had come in on May 23, a full three weeks later there seemed to be no clarity on who would lead the Congress next and whether it had properly examined why it had been completely routed.
Today, more than a month since the election results, the situation hasn’t changed. The Congress still does not know who is leading the party. Party President Rahul Gandhi appears adamant about stepping down, and as per murmurs, is refusing to even sign orders for appointments.
He offered his resignation to the Congress Working Committee on May 25, reportedly giving the organisation a month to find someone to replace him – even as many in the old guard are still pleading for him to stay on.
With no clearly defined second rung, the party doesn’t have a natural mechanism through which it can continue to operate, even as it searches for a new president. Rahul Gandhi’s mother, former party president Sonia Gandhi, appears to be attempting to steady the ship, though it is a mammoth task with no clarity on what course to take.
The confusion at the top has led to a great deal of discord within state units, with various leaders hoping to use the uncertainty as a chance to assert themselves. This includes a number of states where elections are due later this year, leaving those campaigns in limbo.
Meanwhile, there is another front to this mess.
Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 campaign was supposed to be different from Congress campaigns of old because it had data on its side. Praveen Chakravarty, a former investment banker, joined the party in the run-up to the elections, and set about making data a key part of its decision-making process.
The centrepiece of this approach was Shakti: an app, built on a platform that would gather data and pass on instructions to millions of Congress workers around the country. Insights from Shakti were said to be responsible for Rahul Gandhi’s focus on the Rafale deal as well as the campaign slogan, “chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is the thief, a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged conflicts of interest in the deal to buy the French fighter planes).
But did this focus on data mislead Rahul Gandhi and the party?
- First, the HuffPost reported on how a huge number of registrations on Shakti were bogus, so any data coming from it was suspect.
- Then, the Economic Times added more details, explaining how Congress workers were incentivised to draw in as many individuals onto the app with no way of checking whether they were actually party supporters.
- The Sunday Guardian went so far as to suggest that some Congress leaders saw Praveen Chakravarty as a “BJP mole”, prompting a formal response from him.
This is classic Congress. The problems with the Shakti app and the data it generated do seem genuine. And many have questioned the opaque nature of Chakravarty’s operations. Yet the party’s failures can hardly be put down to just bad data and a newcomer with the ear of the president.
Many in the old guard now seem content to blame the election debacle entirely on Shakti. Some are even claiming that they gave much better reports to Rahul Gandhi about the situation on the ground, but were ignored in favour of the data team.
Of course, all of this is playing out in the media and through incessant WhatsApp rumours. The viciousness with which Chakravarty is being blamed will make it harder for the party to ever attract other skilled outsiders, since they too will be worried about turf wars. Meanwhile, there is no complete accounting for the election failures, and no clarity on who will lead the party.
One anonymous quote in a Hindustan Times report on the situation encapsulated perfectly how the Congress sees infighting like this not as a negative, but as intrinsic to how the party has evolved: “The problem is that Rahul Gandhi was never given a free hand… He had to work with the old guard who were part of his mother’s team and that stopped a brand new Congress from emerging. Indira’s success came out of Congress splitting, Rajiv also had a split and so did Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi needs a split (in the party) for his ideas to work.”
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- Parliament began with the unseemly sight of MPs, particularly Muslims and those from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, being heckled by the BJP benches during their oath-taking. The media made it seem as if cries of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Allahu Akbar” rang out from both sides, when actually only “Ram” was used to taunt.
- The President’s speech included a promise to implement a National Register of Citizens beyond Assam. The speech, which is written by the government, said that the controversial citizenship measure would be implemented in “areas affected by infiltration”.
- The first legislative battle of the new Parliament is over the triple talaq bill. Though the practice has been outlawed by the Supreme Court, the BJP government still aims to take credit for improving the lives of Muslim women by passing a controversial law.
- Four Telugu Desam Party MPs in the Rajya Sabha switched over to the BJP. Since the TDP had just six legislators in the Upper House, the defections significantly dent its Parliamentary presence.
- The Congress dissolved its Karnataka unit, with plans to restructure. Senior leader Veerappa Moily also said in public that the 2019 elections tie-up with the Janata Dal (Secular), its alliance partner at the state level, was a mistake.
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Reports, analysis & opinions
- Should the Congress ask Jagan Reddy, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar to return? Roshan Kishore in the Hindustan Times suggests getting these state leaders back into the party would be its best shot at relevance.
- Strong local democracy and a spurt in rural development explains West Bengal’s political violence. Shoaib Daniyal on Scroll.in explains the continued political clashes in the state, even after the election results.
- Corporate donations make up a huge portion of political funding, and they might be indistinguishable from bribes. Divya Guha in the Wire breaks down how crores and crores of murky money pour into political party accounts from corporations.
- Did Arvind Subramanian get his GDP ‘over-estimation’ claim wrong? That’s what the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, and a few other analysts are saying, while others claim he got the gist right. I have a whole thread of the significant pieces in response to Subramanian’s paper.
- Those opposed to simultaneous elections are just worried about Modi’s popularity. R Jagannathan in Swarajya, says the Opposition is being short-sighted by opposing the One Nation One Election move.
Did we miss a piece that should have been included here? Have thoughts about the Political Fix? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org