It’s an anecdote from his childhood that Rahul Gandhi is fond of narrating. How, as a young boy, he was scared of the dark and how his grandmother Indira once made him stand in the garden at night, all by himself. He had cried out for help, but no one, not even his mother, had turned up. That night, he says, he conquered his fear and found his way out of the dark.
Now in his mid-forties, Rahul is at the helm of affairs of a party that finds itself sinking into a political quagmire after its recent rout in the heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Worse, the Grand Old Party has had to face the ignominy of watching a fleet-footed BJP snatch two states from under its nose — Goa and Manipur — where it had emerged as the single largest party. Though the win in Punjab remains the lone bright spot, this is as dark as it gets for the Congress. Will Rahul now find his way out of it?
With a formidable opponent in the BJP and with elections to Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, where the party is now in power, due in less than a year, the Congress finds its footprint steadily shrinking — the party is now in power in six states. The population in Congress-ruled states — Punjab, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Himachal and Puducherry — is now a mere 8.9 per cent of the country’s population; the BJP’s is 61per cent.
What, then, is wrong with the party? And where does it go from here? With Congress president Sonia Gandhi mostly out of action and with vice-president Rahul now holding the reins, these are questions that are often interpreted to mean that the mess in the party has a lot to do with its current leadership.
Crisis of leadership
Rahul’s friend and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah had, after the results, said there was no leader today with a pan-India acceptability who could take on Modi and the BJP in 2019, a remark that left many Congressmen fuming. But in private, many agree that Rahul has no answers to an ascendant Modi-Shah combine.
Many of these leaders who have worked closely with Rahul say it doesn’t help that Sonia Gandhi hasn’t officially passed on the baton to him. It doesn’t help Rahul that there have been the inevitable comparisons with Sonia Gandhi’s style of functioning. Sonia has been president of the party for 19 years, but there are few Congressman who complain, publicly or privately, about her style of functioning.
“Sonia Gandhi’s biggest strength is that she recognises her own weakness. And therefore, she allows other people to go with their skills and strengths. The difficulty with Rahul Gandhi is that he thinks he knows it all. He pretends to be a democrat, but in reality, he is a huge autocrat,” says a top Congress leader.
Former Congressmen such as Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, have repeatedly spoken of the lack of accessibility to Rahul as the reason for their disillusionment with the party. Now a rising star in the BJP, Sarma says, “For the BJP, we are happy as long as Rahul Gandhi is in charge of the Congress. He is like an insurance cover for the BJP. As long as he is around, there will be no effective opposition,” he says.
The senior Congress leader who spoke of Rahul being a closet “autocrat” is prepared to give Rahul the benefit of doubt on the question of accessibility. “There are lots of people who are equally inaccessible. How many people does Mayawati meet or for that matter Narendra Modi? The difference is that they were winning elections,” he says.
As leader of a party where people tend to pull in several directions, Rahul, it often seems, can do little right. While some talk of his “autocratic” ways, others complain of his indecisiveness, yet others that he takes decisions in a hurry. Again, they talk about Sonia and how, she would have waited for a consensus or at least ensured that all sides are heard. “There was a sense of justice (under Sonia), even if there was none at times,” says a former state unit president of the party.
Even those who believe in him and his leadership believe he has done precious little to change the status quo in the party in the last two and a half years. “He used to talk about changing the structure and functioning of the organisation before the 2014 elections. Though we lost in 2014, it presented him a wonderful opportunity to restructure the party. What has he done? The same faces are around. And they are still trusted and are powerful, so how does one believe in what Rahul says? He has not shown conviction in his beliefs,” says a Congress Working Committee member.
There have, of course, been instances of Rahul taking charge — many of the state units chiefs, such as VM Sudheeran in Kerala and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, have been his picks — but these have only been flashes in the pan.
There are some Congress leaders who believe Rahul can be challenged if the party holds internal elections. With the Election Commission setting a June deadline, the party could be holding organisational elections in the coming months from the lowest rung to that of the post of Congress president.
Crisis of narrative
While most Congress leaders have been blaming the defeat on the BJP’s ‘polarising’ of voters, in private, many of them, especially the younger lot, have been pointing to the lack of a narrative in the party.
They say that in the three years since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the Congress has failed to give the voter a new agenda, a new reason to vote for the party.
“What have been the two overriding constructs of the last 33 months of BJP rule? One is a warped and perverted definition of patriotism and the other is of an economy based on creative numbers, when it has, in fact, sunk to a new Hindu Rate of Growth. As long as we do not have an alternative vision and narrative, I am afraid we don’t have a story to tell,” says senior leader Manish Tewari.
Kishore Chandra Deo, a former Union Minister and a veteran Congress leader from Andhra Pradesh, says that besides this lack of a narrative, the party’s biggest failure has been its inability to take its message to the people. “If you look at the data, the UPA government had taken a number of initiatives in the rural sector and for tribals. What the Modi government has done is to simply repackage and market them. The predecessor of the much-hyped Swachh Bharat Mission was the Nirmal Bharat Mission under UPA. But did anyone talk about it? The party, as an organisation, has failed to communicate,” he says, adding that a leadership change cannot resolve many of these problems.
Deo’s state, Andhra Pradesh, doesn’t have a single Congress MP or MLA, an inexplicable low for a party that in May 2009 won 156 of the 294 Assembly seats and 33 of the 42 MP seats in the combined state. Since the decision to create Telangana decimated the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, neither Sonia nor Rahul or any other senior Congress leader has visited the state. A senior Andhra leader says, “It will take several years for the Congress to make any comeback in Andhra. The YSRCP (YSR Congress Party) is now the main opposition party.”
Even in Telangana, the Congress let the Telangana Rashtra Samithi cash in on the statehood sentiment. Telangana Congress chief N Uttam Kumar Reddy admits it was a “lost opportunity”.
In the recent election for 227 seats in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation that was billed as a mini-Vidhan Sabha fight, the Congress won only 31 seats and couldn’t retain any of its 10 municipal corporations across Maharashtra. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former senior minister from western Maharashtra says, “Frankly, we failed as a team. None of the state or AICC leaders ever bothered to find out how we were coping with the elections.”
Many in the Congress and even Rahul Gandhi often hold up the Kerala model, where the organisation is vibrant and where the party has a long line of second- and third-rung leadership. What is unsaid about this model, however, is that the party is a contender in the state because of its pragmatic religion-based alliances — it has as its allies the Muslim League, which holds considerable clout in the north, and the Kerala Congress, which has influence in the Christian belt. Besides, the Congress in Kerala has a potent mix of leaders representing diverse caste groups and regions.
It’s this pragmatism that the party never quite mastered in Uttar Pradesh, a state which once elected Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and which now has Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as MPs, a state where the party was in power for almost 30 years after Independence.
Crisis of direction
The rout in UP, though, has been in the making for a while, says a former Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh. Recounting an anecdote from June 2005 to prove his point, this leader, then a first-time MP from Andhra Pradesh, says he was shocked when he heard that the party’s candidate had got a mere 660 votes in an Assembly by-election in Allahabad West. Allahabad, after all, was synonymous with the Nehru family and the Congress’s loss there had baffled the MP. During a chance encounter with Rahul in Parliament, the MP asked him about the loss. Rahul, also a first-time MP then, told him that he was not really surprised as the Congress had, in the last 20 years, not produced a credible non-Brahmin, backward or Dalit face in the state. Nearly 12 years later, as the party faces its worst-ever electoral defeat in UP, it is clear Rahul knew the party never really existed in the political landscape of UP. The alliance with SP was, therefore, not a ‘battle for UP’, and the target wasn’t Lucknow but Delhi. As the results show, the Congress never aimed right.
“We are not clear about our aim,” says a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh. “After a year-long campaign among Dalits, one fine day we started talking of taking Brahmins along and class-based reservation. Then, after a month-long campaign against regional parties, we ended up in an alliance with one and never talked about the other during the election. The voter is not to be blamed, it is we, who are confused,” he says, adding that he spent the weeks leading up to the election apologising to workers for not being able to reward them for their work.
In Manipur, where the Congress ended up as the single largest party but lost the race to the BJP, which formed the government, Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson Th Debabrata blames the Central leadership for “ignoring” the state unit. “Rahul Gandhi came for a rally — just one — and that too for half an hour, where he gave a 27-minute speech and left directly afterward. On the other hand, all the senior leaders of the BJP — Ram Madhav, Prakash Javadekar, Himanta Sarma — camped in Imphal for months. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah held rallies here, so did Rajnath Singh.’’
The Congress’s slide was evident much before these elections, as the party saw a string of high-profile exits, all heading to the BJP camp – besides Sarma, Haryana Jat leader and current Union minister Chaudhary Birendra Singh, former UPCC chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi and her brother Vijay Bahuguna in Uttarakhand. The latest to line up outside the BJP camp is senior Karnataka veteran SM Krishna.
From being a party which once had stalwarts in every state — N D Tiwari and G B Pant in Uttar Pradesh, Vasntrao Naik and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Jagannath Mishra in Bihar, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan — the Congress’s state units have been reduced to centres of factional feuds. The sight of a PCC chief who is always at odds with the chief minister has been a feature of almost every state where the Congress is in power.
Joshi, a former UPCC president who joined the BJP in October last year and who is now BJP MLA from Lucknow Cantt, says, “For years, the Congress in UP has been dependent on the Central leadership’s charisma; no state leadership has been allowed to grow. The feedback system is very weak. There is coterie of 15-30 people who surround the leadership and power rotates between them. They are not removed even if they fail. Amidst all these inflated egos, it is the worker who gets demoralised. The Congress worker has forgotten how to fight. There is no one to lead at the state level.”
Congress leaders who speak about the need for a strong state leadership point to Amarinder Singh’s victory in Punjab, but he too, they say, had to fight to wrest control of the party in the state – in November 2015, the Central leadership gave in to pressure from Singh and effected a leadership change in the state unit, removing PCC chief Pratap Singh Bajwa, who had been appointed by Rahul.
Former Congress MP Priya Dutt too stresses on the need for a strong state leadership. “The decision making in the party has slowed drastically. While both Modi and Amit Shah can take a decision and implement it in hours, it takes days and months for the Congress leadership to take a decision. The party also should revive its cadre for which all the frontal organisations need to be reactivated,” she says.
Lok Sabha MP and senior Congress leader K V Thomas also does not believe that a simple leadership change would solve the issue. “You should get the central leadership active. At the same time, everything cannot be decided by the high command. State leadership should be allowed to take decisions,” says Thomas.
Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia agrees that Congress has to use its talent better while giving Rahul a “free hand” to effect an overall restructuring of the party. “Grassroots leaders who have the ability and image should be positioned at the state and at the Centre. The Congress has tremendous talent — you just have to place them at the right place,” he says.
Ultimately, says a senior Congress leader, it all boils down to winning elections. “How does a politician legitimise himself? By winning elections. If the party has no confidence that you can win them elections, what is the solution? It is like the chicken-and-egg story. Are we not winning because there is a problem with him or is it that because he is not able to win, people look for problems? The bottom line is, he is not clicking,” says the leader, a former party general secretary.
With ENS inputs
Karnataka According to party insiders, Congress in Karnataka has been drifting along with no great organisational activity. This was evident in the 2015 local polls, when in the Bengaluru city council polls, the Congress won only 76 of the 198 seats while the BJP won 100 but the Congress came to power by forging an alliance with the JD(S) and Independents. It fares better in the panchayat election last year, where it won the maximum number of seats.
Himachal Pradesh The party’s only hope is 83-year-old CM Virbhadra Singh — notwithstanding anti-incumbency, the graft cases against him, and his open spat with PCC president Sukhwinder Sukhu. The 2014 general elections showed which way the wind was blowing, with the BJP winning all four Lok Sabha seats from the state. Virbhadra admits that the Congress “needs a complete overhaul” — “not only structural changes but also in its policies”.
Madhya Pradesh On February 22, when Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders descended on Bhopal to gherao the Vidhan Sabha, the protest made news not for what the leaders spoke but for the very fact that they came and spoke from one platform. But the show of unity lasted only a few days. Apart from remaining out of power for three consecutive terms, the Congress also saw its worst Lok Sabha tally in Madhya Pradesh in 2014, winning two of 29 seats.
Gujarat last saw a Congress government 22 years ago; the party also did not win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Although it gained substantially in the district and taluka panchayat polls held soon after the Patidar agitation of 2015, indicating unrest among youth over various issues, that surge hasn’t sustained. The Congress’s hopes of gaining from the absence of an active Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have also taken a decisive blow from the resounding UP results.
Rajasthan PCC chief Sachin Pilot takes heart from last year’s civic polls. The Congress got 45 per cent of the votes compared to the BJP’s 47 per cent. It has also won three of the four bypolls held in Rajasthan since 2013, when it won only 21 seats in the 200-member House. However, even as the Congress has picked up pet BJP issues like demolition of temples and deaths of cows to up its game, its own ranks are divided, with Pilot, Ashok Gehlot and C P Joshi believed to be in constant tussle.
Chhattisgarh While the Congress has been out of power for over 14 years, the fight between the party and BJP has always been close. In 2018, however, there will be a new factor in the mix: the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress, led by the formidable Ajit Jogi, who has been taking away Congress leaders in the last year. In contrast, the Congress, that lost many of its prominent faces in the Naxal attack at Darbha in 2013, has no prominent leader of the stature of Jogi or BJP CM Raman Singh.
Nagaland, Sikkim and Meghalaya In Nagaland and Sikkim, the Congress now doesn’t have a single MLA. In Nagaland, all its eight MLAs have joined the Naga People’s Front. In Meghalaya, the Congress heads a coalition government, but ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections, it is fighting a growing rift between Chief Minister Mukul Sangma and Pradesh Congress Committee chief D D Lapang. The BJP has set its sights on the state, where it has a powerfully ally in the NPP.