A protest rally against demonetisation in Mumbai by the Congress party on November 28 summed up the state of the party in the economic capital. Sanjay Nirupam, the party’s city unit chief, was holding court but prominent leaders Gurudas Kamat, Milind Deora and Priya Dutt, among others, were conspicuous by their absence. Everyone tried to be upbeat, but it was a strain. Riven with factionalism and deeply divided, India’s oldest party continues to face an existential crisis as it readies itself for the next round of elections — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls.
Several party officials admit privately that infighting has adversely hit the revival plan after the successive drubbings the party suffered in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls in 2014. But Congress leaders say the growing dismay over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation initiative has given the party its best shot at returning to political relevance in the city ahead of the elections.
“There is certainly unrest on the ground. Demonetisation has been poorly implemented and this has hit the middle and the poorer classes the most,” said party MLA and former Maharashtra minister Naseem Khan.
To harness this dismay, according to Nirupam, Congress leaders and workers are holding ‘nirdhar sabhas’ or public meetings across the city. “We have already planned such meets in 90 (out of 227) wards, of which 70 have been conducted. The response has been welcoming,” said Nirupam. Former Union minister Gurudas Kamat, seen as Nirupam’s biggest detractor, has chaired such meetings in 33 electoral wards so far. He has been tweeting pictures of the public response to his meetings.
“In the aftermath of the crisis over demonetisation, some party is going to benefit,” said another party legislator. While BJP’s ally Shiv Sena too has been questioning the Modi government over the demonetisation issue, Khan said people would “not fall for their double speak over the issue”.
“I think the Congress party could grab hold of the issue. Our party leader Rahul Gandhi has been consistently raising concerns of the common man over the so-called demonetisation from the Day One,” said Nirupam.
A former party corporator said, “It is something that we can build on. The protests over demonetisation have infused fresh energy among the party cadre, and has given rival factions a common platform to rally behind.”
Meanwhile, an internal survey has revealed that the party’s prospects for the Mumbai polls have improved in the post-demonetisation scenario. But some party loyalists remain sceptical. “There is certainly an opportunity which has come knocking, but the moot question is whether we (the Mumbai Congress) can capitalise on it,” said a former party office-bearer.
The scepticism is not without reason. Over the past couple of years, the Congress has caught flak for “failing to set the agenda” as the principal opposition party in the BMC, and even ceding opposition space.
Many blamed the “infighting” and the “neta culture” among party leaders for the state of affairs.
Khan, however, said, “All our leaders are active at the local level, and are connecting with the masses. It is just that we haven’t been able to project this in the media.”
Besides the demonetisation issue, Nirupam said, the party’s election campaign would centre around the failures of the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in the municipality to deliver on development promises over the past two decades, and the corruption in the corporation. “We are formulating a chargesheet of corruption cases in the BMC, which will be released soon,” said Nirupam.
Party officials said the plan was to release the ‘chargesheet’ before this month end. “Rahul Gandhi is expected to visit the city in the final week of December. The plan is that he should release the compilation,” said a party source.
Incidentally, the demonetisation episode might have another fallout for the party. Election veterans and former corporators with the ability to mobilise resources could be preferred over first-timers. Insiders confirmed that former MLA Rajhans Singh, previously the party’s group leader in the BMC, was an aspirant. The party is likely to repeat most of its 52 sitting corporators and also weighing the option of fielding 35 former corporators who lost or were denied tickets in 2012.
While Rahul Gandhi had initially dabbled with the thought of reintroducing his experiment of holding primaries for ticket distribution, the plan was shelved on account of apprehensions raised by some leaders. But to contain any rebellion at the time of ticket distribution, the party has decided to “decentralise” the process of candidate selection. “We’ll encourage the party’s district committees to recommend consensus candidates for wards in their region. Only in cases where such consensus is missing would the city leadership step in,” Nirupam said.
An exercise on fixing accountability on leaders lobbying for tickets for their supporters has also been undertaken. Gandhi recently approved a proposal whereby a party leader seeking ticket for a supporter who is not considered a consensus candidate would have to own up responsibility for his/her performance.
While most leaders are opposed to any pre-poll alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party, which has limited presence in the city, there is also hope that the Aam Aadmi Party’s decision not to contest will help bring back some “secular” votes. The presence of the buoyant All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the fray, however, could rob the party of a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes. The AIMIM outperformed the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in the first leg of the local body polls last month.
While the Congress has been out of power in the municipality for over two decades, the upcoming election will be a “semi-final” before the 2019 general and assembly elections.