Digvijay Singh

‘There is no cause for panic’

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Digvijay Singh. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Himanta Biswa Sarma. His departure from the party may have cost it 10-15 seats, says Digvijay Singh. Photo: PTI

Interview with Digvijay Singh of the Congress.

Digvijay Singh was one of the few senior Congress leaders who interacted with the media as the results to the five Assembly elections came out on May 19 underscoring major reverses for the party. The former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister came up with a spirited defence of his beleaguered party, exhorting at the same time the Congress leadership, through a number of tweets, to initiate concrete measures to stem the tide and move towards the future. He even stated that the Congress had done “enough introspection” and perhaps the time had come for “a major surgery”. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah has characterised the results of the five Assembly elections as “two more steps towards Congress-mukt Bharat”. There is a perception that your tweets calling for “major surgery” in the Congress reflects the same perception, albeit with a sense of panic.

People are free to hold their opinion and have their interpretation on any political development. But that should not be at the cost of facts and reality. It is true that the Congress has suffered some reverses in these elections. It is also true that the BJP has made some gains, especially in its first-ever victory in Assam. But there is no cause for panic. One needs to just look at the results closely and you would see that the epithet of “Congress- mukt Bharat” is just in the imagination of people with fantastic notions of grandeur.

Anybody who knows the electoral and political history of Kerala is aware that the people of the State alternate between the UDF and the LDF. This time it was the turn of the LDF after a five-year Congress-led UDF rule. In West Bengal, the Congress has actually improved its tally from 42 seats in 2011 to 44. In Puducherry, the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] have come to power defeating the incumbent government.

More importantly, those who are crowing about “Congress- mukt Bharat” have been roundly defeated by Trinamool Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [AIADMK] in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively. Their vote share has also come down in comparison to the high they had during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. So, barring the victory in Assam, the BJP has nothing to boast about from these elections.

Still, there are several lessons for the Congress too from the setbacks. That is why I stated that it is time to go beyond introspection and into concrete action to rectify our problems and deficiencies. Undoubtedly, these concrete measures would strengthen the party.

But what exactly are these concrete measures? There is a view, even within the Congress, that the comment on major surgery could well be targeted at the current top leadership itself, comprising Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

The topmost leadership of the Congress, comprising Soniaji and Rahulji, is the surgeon that would undertake the surgery. It is under the leadership of the Congress president and vice president that concrete measures would be implemented to bring about important changes to meet short-, medium- and long-term goals.

As for the concrete measures and the methods for it, all that has been thoroughly discussed and listed out by the party through a series of inner-party exercises. These processes are in different stages of implementation. An important stage was after the Lok Sabha elections, when a report was prepared under the leadership of senior leader A.K. Antony. The report had gone comprehensively into various issues affecting the organisation.

Taking the process further, the Congress vice president had asked all senior Congress leaders to submit reports on the road ahead for the party and to hold discussions with State leaders. These reports too were submitted in 2015.

The key suggestions that came up and got listed as part of these processes included ones that underlined the importance of the changing demographic patterns in the country, the rising aspirations of the marginalised sections of society, including the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and of course the need to infuse people with grass-roots connect at various levels to strengthen the organisation across the country.

The need to reorient the style and content of the party’s campaigns using all the new media forums were also highlighted by these reports. My call for concrete and urgent action is based on these suggestions and the need to take up and implement them in a systematic manner. Indeed, it is bound to be a long-drawn affair that requires elaborate planning and a well-laid-out action plan. Certainly, this is an opportune context to make a beginning.

But the Congress reverses of 2014 and later were also the result of policy and ideological failings. Do these suggestions address these failings too?

The reports and the suggestions that had come up as part of it had also underscored that the party’s initiatives and campaigns should highlight the core Congress principles of social justice, economic independence and equality as well as sustainable development. The rise of communal forces during the past two years of the Modi regime has imparted a greater relevance to this aspect.

Would you say overhauling the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and other top bodies of the party to bring in younger and more vibrant people would also be part of this major surgery?

A call on all these matters has to be taken by the Congress president and vice president. The big question, perhaps, would be how best one can balance experience and maturity with the vibrancy of youth. Personally, I am ready to make way for the younger generation if the party president and vice president decide so.

Do you think that addressing the suggestions etched out in the Antony report and later supplemented through discussions with Rahul Gandhi in good time would have helped the Congress in these State elections too? Did that lack of application aggravate the differences and the split that happened between leaders Tarun Gogoi and Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam?

It is a moot point whether the initiation of the comprehensive organisational plan would have impacted these elections decisively. But it is a fact that there were too many complicated factors in Assam that the national leadership, including me, were found wanting in addressing and intervening constructively.

Most important among was the inability to iron out the differences between Tarun Gogoi and Himanta Sarma. The departure of Sarma, by itself, may have resulted in the loss of 10-15 seats. But it is also a fact that he was overambitious and would not settle for anything less than the replacement of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi with himself.

On his part, Gogoi felt that he had brought up Sarma over so many decades and branded the questions raised by Sarma as signs of a lack of gratitude. We could not intervene in time to prevent the full-blown eruption of these differences.

The BJP jumped at this and saw this as an opportunity to wean away Sarma. A similar oversight was shown by us with the Bodos too. The community and its political leadership were with us till this election. We lost them too and the BJP’s stratagems roped them in. In many ways, the BJP replicated the Congress strategy of cobbling up a rainbow coalition of social and political groups.

There is a stream of opinion that the seat adjustment in West Bengal with the Left parties helped the Congress retain its seats and even marginally improve its performance because the transfer of Left votes to Congress was complete. At the same time, the Congress rank and file did not transfer votes to the Left parties leading to major losses of Left Front candidates. Do you think that this would lead to a credibility issue for the Congress vis-a-vis other secular parties who wish to conduct joint electoral and public campaigns with you?

I am yet to go into the details of voting in West Bengal and hence would not be able to make an informed comment on this. However, I have been told by several political activists belonging to both the Congress as well as the Left parties that the parties would not even have been able to campaign but for the alliance.

Several political observers have also told me that the ground-level cadres of both the parties were subjected to such harassment that they would have had difficulty in raising a campaign if they were not together. Personally, I feel the alliance should have come up much earlier than they did, that is, just before the election. That would have helped develop greater understanding and bonding among the cadres of the two parties.

Do you think that the Congress president and vice president would address the points flagged by you anytime soon?

I certainly hope so, though the decision as to what exactly is the opportune moment would be taken collectively under the leadership of the party president and vice president.