A party adrift

Print edition : January 02, 2004

Even as the Congress(I) high command fudges facts to explain away the electoral defeats, a section of the leadership has started talking about new strategies for the Lok Sabha elections and even doubting Sonia Gandhi's ability to lead the party to victory.

in New Delhi

THE Congress(I), which until the other day claimed to be the lone challenger to the BJP at the national level, is rattled by the defeat in three States in the recent round of Assembly elections. The party is still to announce what it proposes to do to set its house in order and to meet the bigger challenge that the BJP will pose in the general elections next year.

Sonia Gandhi presiding over the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi on December 7.-

Most Congress(I) leaders realise that the Lok Sabha elections will be a direct contest between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. They also recognise that the party stands no chance in such a contest but cannot do much about it. "We are aware of this problem that is staring us in the face, but there is nothing we can do. It is for the high command to take a decision," said a senior leader who did not want to be named.

It is not that the high command does not realise the problem, but, Ostrich-like, it is trying to wish it away. The Congress(I) president is aware that the tone and tenor of campaigning in the Lok Sabha elections will revolve around the "Atal vs Sonia" theme, but she appears clueless on how to counter it. "Hopefully that is still far off," she said when Frontline asked her how she proposed to tackle the challenge in the event of the Lok Sabha elections turning into a direct contest between herself and Vajpayee.

One would have expected the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's highest decision-making body, to come up with a road map for the future, taking into account the reasons for the setback. But the seven-hour-long extended CWC meeting on December 7 did nothing of the sort. It came up with a vacuous resolution expressing faith in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and hoping that all "right-thinking, progressive and secular forces will support the endeavours of the Congress party". "We are a party which is focussed on the future," Congress(I) spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy said when asked whether the meeting discussed the reasons for the setback in three States. The Congress(I) president was more honest. She admitted that the governments had failed to come up to people's expectations. She also admitted that the "party needed to pull up its socks" for the Lok Sabha elections.

The party organisation is a shambles. Factional feuds have been raging in various State units. In Kerala, where the octogenarian K. Karunakaran has been carping at the A.K. Antony government for sometime now, the party is almost on the verge of a split. In Punjab, rebels led by former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal have been camping in Delhi for sometime now, parading themselves in front of the high command, trying to pull down the Amarinder Singh government.

In Delhi, where the Congress(I) won the Assembly elections, a team led by Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Prem Singh and former president Subhash Chopra was engaged for days in scuttling Sheila Dixit's chances of retaining the chief ministership. The exercise was obviously aimed at getting prized ministerial berths for their nominees, but it painted a sorry picture of the party. The dissidence soon after a convincing victory was seen as a sign of the high command's lack of control. A few months ago, Uttaranchal too witnessed a tug of war when dissidents led by the State party chief Harish Rawat camped in Delhi to get Chief Minister N.D. Tiwari removed.

Even in States where the dissidents have not taken to the street, the party organisation is in disarray. In Bihar, the exercise to revamp the party in preparation for the Lok Sabha elections has backfired. The newly appointed PCC president, Ramjatan Sinha, is identified with the anti-reservation movement in the State. He is also known for his links with upper-caste armies such as the Ranvir Sena, which have engaged in massacres of Dalits in the past. Besides, by removing Shakeel Ahmad as PCC chief the party has sent out a wrong signal to the minorities. Sinha's appointment, in effect, may earn the party high command the wrath of the backward classes, the minorities and Dalits, its core base at one time. Sinha has already antagonised a large section of Congress(I) leaders, including the legislature party leader.

In Uttar Pradesh, the party seems confused. It supports the Samajawadi Party-led government, but acts more like an Opposition party, criticising the government for its decisions on the economic front, the affidavit on Ayodhya and other issues. It hobnobs with the Bahujan Samaj Party in the hope of a Congress(I)-BSP alliance reaping dividends in the Lok Sabha elections. However, a tacit understanding with the party in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh failed to bring the desired results. Instead, a rebuffed S.P. cut into the Congress(I) vote and won seven seats. Neither did its understanding with the BSP in Delhi do the Congress(I) any good in the seats that the BSP left for it to contest.

In Chhattisgarh, too, the lack of a proper alliance was a factor, besides the shift in the tribal vote, that did the Congress(I) in. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is sharing power with the Congress(I) in Maharashtra, cut into its votes. Political observers believe that a pre-poll alliance with the BSP, the NCP and the Left in Chhattisgarh would have given the Congress(I) 52 seats. In Rajasthan, a pre-poll alliance would have added 29 seats to the Congress(I) kitty, making the victory margin of the BJP much smaller or even a Congress(I) victory a possibility.

These issues, particularly the one of alliances, do not appear to have got the attention they deserve at the CWC meeting. Asked if the issue of alliances was taken up, the Congress(I) president said it was not discussed since the matter was left to the discretion of the Chief Ministers. She said the party stood by its Shimla resolve, that it was open to pre- and post-poll alliances with like-minded parties in order to defeat communal forces. However, most political observers believe that in the recent round of elections this stand remained just an intent.

Senior Congress(I) leaders have started thinking about the issue, but are not sure what the party president has in mind. "It is true that politically we are getting increasingly isolated. Even those who are partners in some States are not partners in the real sense of the term. They are more like adversaries. Elsewhere, our problem is that most of the smaller parties are in direct contest with us, making it difficult for us to forge alliances as the BJP has done," said a senior leader. But this could cost the party dearly in the Lok Sabha elections and there is no indication of any serious thinking on this issue at the decision-making level in the party.

CONGRESS(I) insiders said the party was clueless why its traditional tribal strongholds were falling one by one. The pattern of voting in the tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan is almost the same as it was in Gujarat last December. Had the party taken preventive steps in the light of the Gujarat experience, the picture in the current round of elections might have been a different one. "The time has now come for us to move from political thinking to action at the ground level. But sadly that is not happening. There is a huge gap between thinking and action," said a senior leader. According to the leader, neither the party president nor her coterie has an understanding of the political realities.

Said another Congress(I) leader, who is active in the Hindi heartland: "People like us have no access to the Congress(I) president and those who have access have no contact with grassroots politics. This is our main problem today. Sonia Gandhi's advisers are all from the political era of the past, when the party was in power. They still carry the hangover and refuse to dirty their hands in realpolitik. What is needed is hardcore action, not rhetoric." That the Congress(I) president is seized of the problem became clear when she indicated in her interaction with the media that a "revamping" of the AICC was on the cards.

The CWC resolution reveals how far removed the party is from reality. Rather than analysing the reasons for the defeat, it attributes the BJP's victory to "the vulgar display of financial resources indulged in by the BJP and deployment of RSS and VHP cadres". It ridicules the BJP's claim of having won these elections on the issue of development and good governance, though it is a fact that at least in Madhya Pradesh the BJP did nothing but talk of these two issues to unseat Digvijay Singh. Except for reiterating faith in Sonia Gandhi's leadership, the resolution says nothing substantial.

"We are confident that Congressmen and Congresswomen under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi will rise to the occasion to meet these challenges with courage and conviction. We are also equally confident that in this exercise all the right thinking, progressive and secular forces will support the endeavours of the Congress party," the resolution says.

In typical Congress(I) style, a committee, comprising Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Ahmad Patel, has been constituted to look into the reasons for the defeats and to finetune the strategy for the Lok Sabha elections. However, the rank and file of the party are sceptical about the exercise. "What is required at this stage is to identify the problem, which is there for all to see, and find a graceful solution," said a senior leader.

The leadership issue has suddenly become a debating point in the Congress(I), though no one dares say so openly. Leaders who used to hail Sonia Gandhi for every electoral victory, including those at the municipal level, are suddenly questioning her ability to lead the party in the Lok Sabha polls. According to senior leaders, the leadership issue has begun to be debated quite early because she campaigned aggressively for the party in the four States and has to take a major share of the responsibility for the defeats, besides, of course, the Chief Ministers concerned.

Senior leaders of the party who were sidelined during the campaign say the party erred in exposing Sonia Gandhi so soon. "The opinion polls had carried favourable reports for us till the time of voting. This must have made her coterie confident of victory and in order to deny anyone else the credit, they exposed Sonia Gandhi all by herself to carry the campaign. This was a tactical mistake," said a senior leader.

The three-member committee is hardly equipped to address these questions, which have to be addressed by the Congress(I) president herself.

Another issue that has to be addressed by the party if it wants to give the NDA a serious fight is its stand on economic issues. The party's position on issues like privatisation and liberalisation remains vague. Even crucial policy documents like the economic resolution adopted at the AICC meet last year are ambiguous on this aspect. Obviously, the model followed by its State governments, which was lauded by the Congress(I) president in the AICC meet, has failed to come up to people's expectations and the party will have to offer something else. Whatever it is, it will be a major factor in the Congress(I)'s campaign to replace the NDA in the Lok Sabha elections.

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