The Congress needs to build coalitions, not across parties, but across social sections.
In his AICC speech, Congress vice president (and campaign chief) Rahul Gandhi was trying to say all the right things — and perhaps in the right manner. He was aggressive, sarcastic, cajoling. He even tried to be inspiring and argumentative. He spoke of the UPA government’s achievements, he spoke of opponents and he spoke of the possible vision that only the Congress can uphold. If one were a willing Congress supporter, it was easy to suspend disbelief and dream of the Congress’s electoral fortunes in the coming general election.
However, as one tries to make sense of the speech and its possible implications, one inevitably stumbles upon a few challenges that should stare Congresspersons in the eye in terms of what lies ahead for the party in the coming months. And if the party wants to share Rahul’s confidence that “Congress-mukt” Bharat was indeed an impossible dream, the Congress will surely have to reinvent itself to reinvent Bharat. But let us restrict ourselves to immediate tasks for the moment. The Lok Sabha elections constitute that immediate task and, in this regard, five challenges can be imagined.
To begin with, the Congress party will have to come to terms with its decision not to project Rahul as its prime ministerial candidate. That was certainly a reasonable move. All opinion polls indicate that Narendra Modi is much ahead of Rahul Gandhi on popularity charts. So it does not make sense to announce his name as the Congress candidate at this stage. Besides, it is a good principle that while there would be some leaders expected to be running for prime minister later, turning the election into a plebiscitary mode needs to be avoided. However, having taken this stand, it does not augur well to have party functionaries announcing ad nauseam, from party fora, that Rahul indeed is the only leader if the party were to form the next government.
This only shows that Rahul and other leaders are not in sync on this issue. In fact, the real challenge before the party is to ensure that there is a move towards genuine collective leadership. One way to do this would be to project at least three or four more individuals as the party’s valued leaders. Another would be to convince observers that decisions are taken by a group of leaders and not by any supreme leader. This is a huge task for a party in which the top leadership is seen primarily as a function of heredity.
The second challenge is about the ensuing campaign. Rahul aggressively explained the achievements of the UPA government and that is something his party would do well to remember. Within the Congress, there are not many who genuinely understand and believe in what the UPA has done so far. Therefore, there is a tendency to distance the party from the performance of the government and talk of other issues. The clamour to hide behind Rahul, too, is because of this tendency. But more than arguing in favour of the UPA’s policies, the Congress needs to now come up with the clear outline of what it will do in continuation of its regime based on entitlements. One clue that Rahul’s speech gave was about making the system more transparent. He even hinted that this would hurt the Congress. Whether that remark carried meaning for his party is not yet clear. In any case, an outline of future steps in economic policy, governance and direction of the welfare regime can help the party deflect the attention from personality issues.
Third, elections are increasingly won — and lost — on the basis of candidates. Rahul Gandhi repeatedly sought to enthuse the “workers”, but came a cropper when he promised only 15 constituencies for an “experiment” in candidate selection. Selecting candidates primarily through the choice of local workers might be a tall order for the Congress party at the moment. However, its candidate selection will be closely watched. The Aam Aadmi Party has already put most other parties on notice about how they select candidates and who the candidates are.
In district after district, our politics has allowed entrenched families and interests to monopolise party machineries at the local level and the Congress party is hostage to these local entrenched interests. To bypass them, to overpower them and to bring in the real party workers as candidates will be a gigantic task, and it remains doubtful if the Congress will be willing to follow its leader’s diktat on this matter.
Four, and even more crucially, the Congress needs to carefully build coalitions — not across parties but across social sections. For too long, the Congress party ignored the middle peasantry castes in many states and also failed to get adequate support from the so-called OBC communities. As a result, it shifted from a rainbow coalition to a coalition of extremes, at least in some critical states.
The challenge will be twofold. One, it needs to go back to the rainbow strategy and two, each colour of that rainbow needs to be bright rather than faded. The AAP has shown that we are now entering the post-Mandal phase; where community identities and aspirations are still important but it is possible to do a different kind of politics. So, the Congress does not have to claim that it is a party of OBCs or a party of minorities.
But whether the party chooses the rainbow strategy or the strategy of a coalition of extremes, it will have to follow the logic of that strategy. Since the 1980s, the Congress party has always prevaricated and fallen between these two strategies — or it had no strategy at all.
Finally, the most challenging task for the Congress will be to translate its leader’s speech and take its meaning to the ordinary party worker. The image of a typical Congress worker at the local level is not something very creditable. It is doubtful if Rahul’s speech will have any resonance with the way Congress workers present themselves. At present, the party is haunted by a dual disconnect.
On the one hand, there is a disconnect between the imagination of the leadership at the top and the reality of how the Congress behaves locally. On the other, there is also a disconnect between the party and the people. How the Congress party bridges this double disconnect will mostly decide how much damage control it can do in the short time left before the elections.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune