Lost: Rahul’s strategy misfired, Cong leaders share challenges and revival strategies

The Sunday Express spoke to many Congress leaders, and they have a long list of suggestions for the party’s revival.

Written by D K Singh , Manoj C G | Updated: May 25, 2014 8:20 am

With Rahul Gandhi’s strategy misfiring this election, the knives are out in the Congress.  From internal autonomy to cadre building, what can the party do to reinvent iself? By D K Singh & Manoj C G

Sonia Gandhi is no stranger to Opposition benches in Parliament. Nor is she unfamiliar with voices of dissent within the party. After all, just about a year after she took over as Congress president in 1998, she had witnessed a split in the party over her foreign origin and later, she had overcome a challenge to her leadership in party elections. But this time, the challenge is even more daunting — not just in terms of reviving the party but also in re-establishing the political credentials of her chosen successor, Rahul Gandhi, who is under intense scrutiny of the party’s rank and file. There are already murmurs — from even a family loyalist like K V Thomas — about bringing Priyanka Vadra into the party organisation, a euphemism for lack of confidence in Rahul’s leadership.
The Sunday Express spoke to many Congress leaders, and they have a long list of suggestions for the party’s revival:

The leadership question

After he attacked the coterie around Rahul, former Congress MP Milind Deora was learnt to be getting a lot of congratulatory calls from his party colleagues. The young MP from Mumbai was once perceived to be a weathercock who sounded out the direction of Rahul’s thinking, be it on the controversial ordinance on convicted legislators or on Maharashtra government’s rejection of the Adarsh Commission report. Last January, hours before the CWC meeting decided not to project Rahul as the party’s PM candidate, Milind seemed to echo his friend’s inner voice as he tweeted quoting Pink Floyd, “Mother, should I run for President? Mother, should I trust the Government? Mother, will they put me in the firing line?”.

When the same Milind, who lost his election, started firing salvos at Rahul and his team in an interview to The Indian Express on Wednesday, it only reflected the extent of frustration and disgruntlement in the Congress.

Rahul’s USP since his induction as AICC general secretary in 2007 had been his “democratisation experiment” that was supposed to rejuvenate the grand old party by infusing “fresh blood” into it. Almost complete transfer of power and authority to the vice-president’s office might have left some veterans sulking, but there were no questions asked as his “revolution” was expected to bring back the glorious old days of single-party rule. On May 16, India did get a government unencumbered by coalition compulsions and the knives were out in the Congress.

“Where was his Youth Congress and NSUI this election? His entire democratisation experiment has finished the assembly line that brought ideologically committed youth into the party. In the name of democratisation, he ended up alienating those who had re-built the party through difficult times. This has to be reversed,” said a senior Congress leader. There is increasing realisation that with a “master strategist” like Narendra Modi leading the BJP, there is no time for Rahul’s “guerrilla politics”.

“His vision to bring young people into the party is great but he (Rahul) should think of replenishing and not replacing. He has to connect and not disconnect. When you saw Soniaji’s choice of Governors, you would think she had dug into the archives before recommending the names. That’s what kept Congressmen, young or old, loyal to the party. They never felt unwanted or diconnected. Rahul has to learn this leadership trait from his mother,” says a former Youth Congress president.

Some leaders are, however, supportive of some of Rahul’s initiatives and ideas. Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who had to sweat it out to prevent the BJP from opening its account in Kerala, said, “We must try to strengthen our inner-party democracy. There should be free and fair exchange of views inside the party and, possibly, elections at all levels. We have to have accurate membership rolls. Rahul Gandhi had introduced all these things in the Youth Congress. It is a question of perfecting it. It should be at all levels, including membership to the CWC.”

Party’s image crisis

Congress leaders are unanimous about re-establishing the party’s image as a “secular, democratic and progressive” party which stood for all sections of the people. Party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed said, “We have to explain to the people, especially the young generation, that secularism does not mean favouring any specific community. The BJP spread that propaganda; they branded us as a pro-Muslim and anti-majority party. We somehow failed to effectively rebut it.”

Tharoor said, “We should define what we stand for — the values of secularism, inclusiveness and our support for the marginalised. Once the yardsticks are defined, we should communicate it repeatedly. In 21st-century politics, reticence is not fully understood.”

According to former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, the Congress used to have an “unwritten coalition” of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, who were joined by other communities. “Now Brahmins have gone to the BJP, Dalits to the BSP and Muslims to a number of parties. We have to instil confidence in all these communities that their interests would be protected by the Congress. It’s a tough fight and we have to struggle, but that is the only way,” he said.

Returning to grassroots

Party leaders say there should be regional or state-level interactive sessions to gather feedback and suggestions at different levels. “We should not treat any dissenting voice as rebellion. We should hold in-camera party meetings involving leaders from state to block levels to give them an opportunity to vent out the steam. That will provide the leadership a solid feedback about what the party needs to do to reconnect with the masses,” said another AICC general secretary. He suggested that all the Congress candidates who lost by a margin of less than one lakh votes should be allotted their respective constituencies to work on for the next five years.

Outgoing External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, “We will now have space for outreach at different levels. We did this exceptionally well before we came to power in 2004 and I think we should now continue to do that. Another thing, we should absorb the changes that have happened and understand them and only then take up positions. I don’t think it helps to explore these things publicly.”

Organisational revamp

Last Monday, after the well-scripted ‘resignation episode’ at the CWC meeting, the apex decision-making body authorised Sonia to take “whatever steps necessary in order to revamp the organisation at all levels”. She herself spoke of the need for “structural changes” in the party. But these words haven’t impressed many. Leaders recalled how, after the party’s drubbing in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, both Sonia and Rahul had blamed it on organisational weaknesses, and then again after the rout in the Assembly elections last December, Rahul spoke of transforming the party “in ways you cannot imagine”. Nothing changed.

Leaders are now suggesting an overhaul of the organisation. “We have to build cadres. We can’t remain a party without a cadre. We have to project youngsters right up to the booth level,” said Ajit Jogi.
Tharoor and Jogi were unanimous in advocating that the Congress has to “nurture and encourage” local, state and regional satraps. “Local leaders command immense affection and popularity. So, I think it is only fair that we bring them up rather than imposing leadership from above,” said Tharoor.

But a local Congressman from Gorakhpur, who had lost the Assembly election in 2012, isn’t very optimistic of anything changing. “Immediately after the results, Akhilesh Yadav sacked 36 of his ministers and Mayawati dissolved the BSP’s units. What did we do? We held a CWC meeting and forgot about it. First let your workers see that you are serious about reviving the Congress,” he said.
While Sonia Gandhi is not known to go for drastic actions when it concerns her loyalists, she is expected to drop many AICC functionaries and replace them with a new team. But, given the dismal performance of those brought in by Rahul in the last reshuffle, she may not have many options.

Coalition conundrum

It was in Sonia’s speech at Pachmarhi in 1998 that the party had opened its door to coalition politics. “This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam. But, in the interim, coalitions may be needed,” she had said.

Sixteen years hence and after two stints in power at the Centre, the Congress is set to witness a debate on this issue with some in the party wanting to abandon coalition politics and use the next five years to rebuild the Congress. Tharoor has a different view. “There are some states where there is a need for pragmatic alliances so as not to cede anti-government space to regional parties. At the same time, we must be careful not to let our own local party structures atrophy because of such understandings. It also makes sense to have a sensible understanding with parties in Parliament vying with each other for the opposition space.”

Given that the party’s ekla chalo policy, whether opted or forced, in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu didn’t work in this election, Sonia may be forced to adopt what she had first expounded in Pachmarhi 16 years ago.

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First Published on: May 25, 2014 12:15 am
  1. B
    bs kar
    May 25, 2014 at 6:33 am
    jayanti natarajan and Jairam ramesh destro UPA2.
    1. B
      May 25, 2014 at 11:52 am
      What's the need to revive when the Govt.is in good hands.Can't they chant Jai Govind Jai Gopal Abki Bar Modi Sarkar.
      1. B
        May 25, 2014 at 4:08 am
        Centre had scholarships meant for poor. Khurshid gave away it mostly for only muslims. Is this secularism? What was the sin of Hindu and other poor children?
        1. P
          Prakash Koshy
          Jun 4, 2014 at 1:10 pm
          But the reality is that Rahul hi is leading the party in the right direction. He is doing it in a systematic and scientific manner. This is to be continued. Revival will happen when they admit the mistakes committed while in government. - See more at: :www.boloji/index.cf...
          1. P
            Prakash Koshy
            Jun 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm
            Rahul hi could successfully hide the misdeeds of Congress and protect Dr. Singh from blame. Instead of admitting the mistakes of the past, Rahul tried to hide Singh government’s shortcomings, which further aggravated people’s anger. - See more at: :www.boloji/index.cf...
            1. D
              Dinesh Patel
              May 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm
              Its no point reviving the congress party as it is now found out as good for nothing by the people how have always voted for them. When this happens its the beginning of the end for the party.
              1. V
                vijai lugani
                May 25, 2014 at 6:39 am
                now the congress is dying daily by inches. as ajit jogi has rightly coclude brhamins votes go to b.j.p. dalit to mayawati and muslim votes to different parties and so on. national party is weakened ba regional parties. . when ever new party comes in states it eats conress votes.
                1. K
                  May 25, 2014 at 4:38 am
                  As long as the dynasty is at the hems of congress party, the young generation of India will avoid it like plague. Democratization should start at the very top....
                  1. H
                    May 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm
                    Congress party is NOT Democratc OR Secular. It is autocratic party which hang around one family. It is corrupt at core and inefficient at large.
                    1. H
                      May 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm
                      Why do you want revive corrupt and inefficient one family party?
                      1. N
                        New Yorker
                        May 26, 2014 at 2:45 am
                        Was Mr. Rahul hi brought in 2007 to rejuvenate the g old party or to retain the family dynasty? In essence, the latter was the idea and hence the tragic loss to the party! There is no point in accusing the leadership now. Why this hue and cry did not happen two years ago? Mr. Tharoor's formula of the need of inner democracy is wonderful! This person does not know the circus going on in the inner democracy of his party in Kerala just because of he is not CONNECTED, as Mr hi, to the realities at the gr root level! His narrow victory over the veteran BJP leader O Rajagopal is an example of his CONNECTIVITY to the reality! Let the Congress experiment the idea of Pro Thomas of Kerala to rejuvenate the ailing congress party! thanks
                        1. P
                          Purna Rath
                          May 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm
                          Frankly speaking, Rahul had no strategy. He did not spell out ant future course of program in his initial campaign. Later on, he highlighted all the major programs of the UPA govt, like the RTI, RTE, Food security, Industrial corridors and after all, the inclusive policy of Congress. Nothing answered the querry of the people. No common men could get ant information regarding where was our black money, or who got the coal jackpot or mine jackpot. Unemplo could not have any belief that the socalled industrial corridors would provide jobs. He did not take any responsibilities to make things do; rather he promised that a Congress team would deliver the resultd. People know the so called team members like same old court-jesters like Digbijay Singh, Sindhe, Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal etc. Whereas Narendra Modi promised that HE will do this or that. He took all responsibility personally. The anger of the people mounting since 2011-12 was so high and widespread that the Party lost from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, am to Gujarat. The arrogance of the party seniors and the deliberate silence and inaction of the PM sealed the fate of the party. Rahul could not have done any better. He should have taken the reins into his own hands in 2012 and change the course of policy then on. People did not believe in the present party dispensation. In future, Rahul or any other leader should take all responsibility sothat people will believe them. The 'Mai nahin, hum' damaged the most.
                          1. R
                            Ramkishore Singh Rathore
                            May 25, 2014 at 3:53 am
                            The best way to revive the congree party will be based on the slogan 'Har haath Shakti and har haath tarakki.'
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