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A revival of sorts

Print edition : Mar 28, 2003

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Buoyed by the victories in the Assembly polls, the Congress(I) is working on new slogans and an imaginative campaign strategy for the next round of elections, to be held later this year.

in New Delhi

CONGRESS president Sonia Gandhi has not only internalised the dress code of mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, but also borrowed heavily from the latter's rich collection of slogans. No wonder, the slogan garibi hatao (eradicate poverty), which had captured the fancy of millions of people in the 1960s and the 1970s, is making a comeback in the Congress (I)'s scheme of things.

"The issues will be those that were raised by Indira Gandhi, garibi hatao being the first and foremost. Peace, development and prosperity are its natural corollaries," said Oscar Fernandes, Congress(I) general secretary, while unfolding the party's agenda for the next round of Assembly elections, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, later this year.

Once the facts about the victory in Himachal Pradesh have sunk in, it is back to the basics at the Congress party office in Delhi. Heads are being put together to devise ways to overcome the anti-incumbency factor, which will inevitably be at play in all these States, all the more so in Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress(I) has been in power since 1993. Catchy slogans are being retrieved from the archives and dusted to make them look shining new. They are being given a new "people-oriented" direction.

Alongside, party strategists are taking a second look at the definition of secularism. According to a section that is increasingly having its say in the party's affairs, it is time the party shed its diffidence about being associated with anything even remotely religious. A huge section in the Congress feels that being apologetic about religious feelings cost the party dearly in the Gujarat elections and hence the party should now clarify its stand on the issue of secularism, instead of parroting the old definition, which has become cliched.

"An entire new generation of voters has come up since the last Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. We cannot go on beating around the bush on certain key issues, including secularism. It is time we told the people that the Congress(I) has never been anti-Hindu, that the new BJP propaganda against the Congress(I), drubbing it for its `soft Hindutva' stand, is nothing but a ploy to divert popular attention from the BJP's own failures,'' says party general secretary Kamal Nath. Both Kamal Nath and Fernandes agreed that the Congress(I) was apologetic about its so-called "soft Hindutva'' image in the Gujarat elections, and that it should not make the same mistake now.

"What does soft Hindutva mean? It is only now that the BJP has started this propaganda. In fact, the Congress(I) has never been anti-Hindu. If we were actually anti-Hindu, could we remain in power in 16 States?'' asked Fernandes. Kamal Nath said the Congress achieving victory in Himachal Pradesh, 95 per cent of the population of which is Hindu, and the BJP winning only one seat in the predominantly Hindu Jammu region in the Jammu and Kashmir elections, indicated that people perceive the Congress differently from the way the BJP tried to portray it. "Now we shall convey to the people that secularism does not mean being not religious. Secularism means neutrality of the state, not discrimination on the basis of religion, not a neutrality of the individual. If I believe in secularism, does that mean I am not religious? I am more religious than any of them. What secularism actually means is that I should not be seen appeasing any section on the basis of my own religion,'' Kamal Nath said.

And although Congress leaders do not admit it at the moment, the image of Indira Gandhi visiting temples across the length and breadth of the country and paying obeisance to sadhus and sants are all being resurrected in order to give a new image to Sonia Gandhi, to mould her in an Indira-like frame, which will portray her as being deeply religious yet uncompromising on her secular credentials when it comes to matters of the state.

"It is high time we removed the cobwebs that the BJP has woven around the Congress(I)'s image,'' Kamal Nath said. The Congress leaders are of the opinion that the people have by and large accepted Sonia Gandhi, and that this new image would make her even more endearing to the masses.

Party strategists aver that Gujarat was an aberration, because there the BJP rode over dead bodies to snatch victory. They firmly believe that the BJP's decisive rout in Himachal Pradesh is an affirmation of the people's faith in the Congress party's "constructive and positive role" as well as a categorical message to the BJP that what happened in Gujarat will not be allowed to happen elsewhere. Besides, Congress(I) leaders confess that in Gujarat they failed to counter the BJP, especially Narendra Modi's propaganda, that a vote for the Congress(I) would be a vote for Pakistan. "We could not stoop to that level. Besides, there was a BJP government there, and that made things difficult for us," said Oscar Fernandes.

The Congress(I) leaders are confident that the "constructive and positive role", and the good performance of the Congress(I) governments in the four States going to the polls will be appreciated by the people. "Our governments have performed outstandingly. Delhi has seen the maximum development minus any scandals. Madhya Pradesh has also done well. In Rajasthan, there was a slight problem because of the unprecedented drought, but here too we have been able to explain to the people that the Centre's discriminatory attitude was responsible for the crisis, that the Centre allowed people to die of hunger. We are going to come back to power in all the four States," asserted Oscar Fernandes. According to him, it is the BJP which should worry about the anti-incumbency factor in all these States. "The anti-incumbency factor against the Centre will be at play in all these States. They (the BJP) will keep explaining what they have done at the Centre, we will tell the people what we are doing for the State," he said.

This confidence on the part of Congress leaders might appear misplaced if a few ground realities are taken into account in the context of the Lok Sabha elections. Despite the fact that the Congress(I) is in power in 16 States now (Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya being the latest in its kitty), it continues to be directionless in crucial States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which account for over 200 Lok Sabha seats.

In Uttar Pradesh, which sends the highest number of members to the Lok Sabha, the party's pathetic condition became all the more evident when it lost to the Bahujan Samaj Party the Gauriganj Assembly byelection, which was also held on February 26. Gauriganj falls in the Amethi parliamentary constituency, which is represented by Sonia Gandhi. It was in Gauriganj that Sonia's daughter Priyanka had recently made a great show of her love for Dalits by helping a Dalit rebuild his house (Frontline, January 3, 2003). Senior Congress leaders, however, share the opinion that it is essentially the leadership of Sonia Gandhi that has provided the momentum to the party, making it the ruling party in State after State. "A vote for the Congress(I) is essentially a vote for Soniaji. People have reposed their faith in the leadership of Soniaji," said Fernandes, echoing the viewpoint of many others in the party.

But Sonia certainly is not resting on her laurels. She has already started overhauling the party organisations in the States. Organisational changes were made in the party unit in Rajasthan in January with an eye on the elections. Her next move is to reorganise the All India Congress Committee; a few high-profile general secretaries might be made to make way for persons with better organisational skills. She has also started interacting with party workers at the grassroots level. A two-day national convention of block-level presidents is being organised on March 28 and 29 as part of this exercise. The block presidents' convention will be followed by a rally the next day at the Ram Lila grounds.

The block presidents' convention is an effort to gather feedback from the grassroots level, in order to attain a synergy between the Congress(I)'s State governments and the party organisation. Besides, workers' conventions are also being planned in the States going to the polls. One such convention has already been held in Bhopal. Such conventions, Sonia Gandhi is believed to have said, would provide the much-needed link between the party worker and the organisation on the one hand and the organisation and the State government on the other. She knows well that the only way to overcome the anti-incumbency factor is to make the government and the party work together. This synergy, along with a few catchy slogans, should see the Congress(I) through in the electoral battles ahead, she believes.

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