By Tridivesh Singh Maini*
After the results of the recent assembly elections on March 11, there have been calls for a serious shake up within the Congress party. The grand old party lost two states, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, emerged as the single largest party in two, Goa and Manipur, and achieved an outright win in the border state of Punjab. The party’s inability to form a government in Goa and Manipur, in spite of being the single largest party, has only added salt to its wounds.
It is not just political analysts, but Congress leaders like Sandeep Dixit and Priya Dutt who have also criticised the role of the Congress High Command (current Vice President Rahul Gandhi). Others within the party have spoken about the need for some serious measures, but never gone to the extent of questioning the Congress Vice President’s leadership style.
There has been a clamour for reform ever since the 2014 Parliamentary elections, where the Congress could bag only 44 seats, and the continuous rout of the grand old party in election after election, numerous prescriptions have been given for the party. In May 2016, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee Digvijaya Singh spoke about the need for a ‘surgery’.
One suggestion which has been made by critics, as well as well-wishers of the party has been to strengthen regional leaders. The triumph of the Congress party in Punjab, where it was able to wrest the state after a decade is a strong reiteration of this point. Captain Amarinder Singh, who took over as the Chief Minister of the state on March 16, is popular in both urban and rural areas and the grand old party’s convincing victory in the border state is largely due to Singh’s personal charisma.
Interestingly, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi spent only three days in the state of Punjab. Singh after his victory reiterated the need for the party to empower strong regional leaders who have a good grasp over local issues and understand the psyche.
It would be pertinent to point out that Rahul Gandhi was not initially keen to project Singh as the face of the Congress in Punjab, because the party had faced two successive defeats under his leadership. It would also be pertinent to point out that Singh had defeated Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in Amritsar in the Parliamentary election of 2014, amidst a Modi wave all over the country.
In the same election, the then Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief, Partap Singh Bajwa, had lost his own seat. Singh sensed an opportunity following his triumph in the Parliamentary election, though the leadership took over a year-and-half to make him PPCC chief and the face of the campaign.
Analysts like Sanjaya Baru have also suggested that the Congress Party bring back into the fold some of its former leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar, who have formed their own regional outfits. Some have even suggested that the regional satraps break away from the party. This is highly unlikely. None of the leaders is likely to question the leadership of Rahul Gandhi in the near future.
Sympathisers of the party are more optimistic about the party’s chances and believe a grand alliance like the one stitched in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi, which managed to dislodge the reasonably successful NDA government, would be able to do a repeat.
If one were to examine both these recommendations there is no doubt that regional leaders need to be empowered not just at the state level but their suggestions should be taken for other state elections as well. In fact, Chief Ministers or Ex- Chief Ministers who have achieved electoral successes should be appointed as observers to other states and their inputs should be taken. Those who have ruled a state would also understand the need for the local leadership having autonomy.
Interestingly, the Delhi unit of the Congress has sought the assistance of Punjab Congress for taking on the Aam Aadmi Party in the upcoming civic polls in the national capital. The Punjab CM is also likely to campaign for his party. In the 2015 Assembly elections, AAP trounced both BJP and Congress, but the BJP, while winning three seats, maintained its vote share.
As for alliances, these are helpful, but the recent election in Uttar Pradesh clearly shows that the India of 2019 is not the India of 2004 or 2009.
The BJP of today is no longer a party of Upper Castes or traders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have been able to expand the support base of the party by not just weaving new social coalitions but also selling a narrative of ‘development’. This has been successfully balanced with ‘welfare’.
In addition to this, demonetisation along with some of the welfare schemes introduced by the current government have helped in further elevating Modi’s image amongst the poor. The old faithful, some of whom have not been convinced with Modi’s economic policies, too, have been humoured with the right dose of ‘nationalism’, ‘Hindutva’ and development.
Does this mean that the new BJP is infallible?
The fact is that in a number of states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and, to some extent, even Gujarat, the BJP faces anti-incumbency. In Rajasthan, the Congress has the best chance of revival and a good performance could also stand them in good stead for the next national election.
It will have to empower local leadership and young dynamic faces, and rather than banking on nostalgia, it needs to speak about how everyone can benefit from economic development and progress. The party should be less reticent about its role in economic reforms in the early 1990s and not allow the BJP to take all the credit for some of the policies initiated by the Congress.
In conclusion, the policies of the Congress party have for very long been decided in 5-star hotels in New Delhi by those who are totally disconnected with the realities of the changing India. It is time that the party allowed strong leaders to function freely and also stopped living in the hope that it will be able to wrest power from the BJP in a short while.
India is fast changing and the Congress needs to come up with a more aspirational narrative than that of the BJP. The party doesn’t lack talent, but its leadership clearly lacks hunger and enthusiasm required for winning elections.
*The author is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]