Implication for the Congress

The Congress: Slow take-off

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Youth Congress workers at a protest against the current economic slowdown in New Delhi on October 9. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Congress, which has made unexpected gains in Maharashtra and Haryana, appears to be not in a hurry to seize the moment.

The Assembly election results in Maharashtra and Haryana should have been heartening for the Congress, for it improved its tally and denied the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the kind of unambiguous victory it had been projecting for itself. Yet there was no sign of excitement at the party headquarters in New Delhi on the day after the results.

Senior party functionaries admitted to this correspondent that there has been no party meeting to either discuss the election results or decide on a road map for States where elections are due soon. A former Minister from the party said senior party leaders in Delhi and in the States were completely inactive and that there was “no consultation taking place anywhere”.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is apparently no longer accessible to party functionaries as she was during her last term, and Rahul Gandhi, who quit as president in May after the general election shock, is also not active. “It is confusing, and cadres are getting demotivated. Even though these two State elections were fought when the Congress organisation was in a shambles, there has been no encouraging word for the cadres from the high command. Such indifference puts people off,” said a senior leader.

Former Union Minister Salman Khurshid recently said the Congress’ problems stemmed from its leader (that is, Rahul Gandhi) walking away from his responsibilities after the Lok Sabha debacle. Khurshid has now been quoted by the PTI as saying that the two Assembly election results have shown that the party’s downslide has stopped and that the leadership only had to demonstrate “clarity of purpose and unity” to reorganise itself.

Leadership issue

Another senior leader said: “Things can move forward only if we can sort out the ambiguities around the leadership issue, both in the States and at the central party office. The reasonably good performance shows people are still looking at us as an alternative, that there are issues which the BJP has failed to address, and that grievances at the grass roots are causing popular resentment. All we need to do is to tap into this mood and be with the people on the ground. But this appears to be wishful thinking at the moment.” Yet there are signals, however sporadic, that the party high command is gradually moving into action mode. It has decided to organise a nationwide agitation during November 5-15 in protest against the growing joblessness, economic slowdown, agrarian crisis and rural distress. Protest meetings and dharnas are being planned at State and district headquarters. Prominent party leaders will address a series of press conferences across the country to highlight these issues. The party is also planning to bring other opposition parties on the same platform on these issues. According to party insiders, Sonia Gandhi may soon call a meeting of other opposition leaders ahead of the winter session of Parliament.

The Congress is also planning to rally other opposition parties around the issue of the European Union parliamentarians’ visit to Jammu and Kashmir and is likely to raise it in Parliament. According to the senior Congress leader Anand Sharma, it was a breach of privilege issue because Indian parliamentarians were not allowed to visit a part of their own country and many of them were detained at the Srinagar airport, whereas a motley group of foreigners not even representing the mainstream politics in their own countries were allowed to visit Jammu and Kashmir. Senior party leaders told Frontline that the party was considering either a breach of privilege motion or a simple adjournment motion against the government.

Regional leaders and alliances

The fact that voters in Maharashtra and Haryana have reposed some faith in the Congress notwithstanding its feeble campaign has brought about the realisation that all is not lost for the party. Senior party leaders told Frontline that one message from the election results was that a strong regional leadership needed to be developed. One of them said: “We have to admit that the Haryana results went in our favour because of Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Otherwise, all opinion polls and exit polls had declared Haryana to be a one-sided contest.” A second lesson to be drawn from the results is that the Congress needs strong allies in States where its local leadership is not strong enough. “In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine was checkmated by the aggressive campaigning by Sharad Pawar. We have to recognise these political realities and take measures accordingly.” Perhaps this realisation has already dawned on the leadership, which has almost clinched an alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand, where Assembly elections are going to be held in five phases from November 30. Although the exact number of seats each party will contest has not been announced yet, sources said it has been agreed to give the bigger share to the JMM and also declare its leader, Hemant Soren, as the chief ministerial candidate. The JMM’s Vinod Pandey confirmed this piece of information. He said: “There is nothing new in this deal. At the time of the Lok Sabha election, it was decided that the Congress would get the bigger share in the Lok Sabha election, while in the Assembly election the JMM would get the bigger share.”

Voting patterns

The Congress also needs to take note of the different ways in which people tend to vote in national and State elections. While the Lok Sabha election was dominated by issues of national security and hypernationalism, in the State elections people showed greater concern for economic issues and joblessness. “Bread-and-butter issues dominated the State elections; otherwise we would not have got the votes that we did,” said a senior leader. This has prompted the party to go to the people with these issues and organise agitational programmes. These programmes will be fully managed by the local level leadership, minus participation from the Gandhis. This, as a leader pointed out, is yet another message that the party wants to take to the people: “We have to learn to do without the Gandhis. They cannot be expected to be present for all street-level programmes all over the country. The local Congress members have to slog on the road, and this was seen to have worked in Haryana and Maharashtra where the Gandhis did not attend any rallies.”

Organisational changes

Party insiders said there was a possibility of some organisational changes at the level of the All India Congress Committee and also in the States. “The speculation about a feud between the old guard and a group of young leaders has been going on for too long, and it needs to be settled. Wait for some action on this front,” said a senior leader. But the fact remains that the party has to strike a balance between its old and young leaders. “The old guard is seen to be delivering, so why constantly run them down?” asked a senior leader, adding that the proposed changes would take place with this fact in view.

Congress leaders also say that if the party leadership is seen as drifting and unsure of which way to go, this may well be a deliberate strategy to let events take their own course. “Why rush things? Let things take their own course. The party high command may be thinking that people will come back to it by default, once they are fed up with the BJP,” said a leader, half in jest. But this may actually be true. Only time will tell whether this will work.