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Looking down the barrel


PRAMOD KUMAR | Issue Dated: April 29, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : Congress party | Congress defeat in MCD polls | Congress defeat in electoral polls | Prime Minister Manmohan Singh |


With the rout in Delhi and a string of electoral defeats round the country, Congress party's once impressive urban and rural mass base is moving away from it, writes Pramod Kumar
On April 15, Mohammad Aslam, a resident of the walled city, came out of the polling booth and let it be known to all that he had pressed the button for BJP in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) election. When asked the reason, Aslam replied, rather curtly, "Manmohan Singh ke sarkar ne garibo ka jeena muhal kar diya hai. Majboori me hamein kamal ke saath jana padh raha hai.'' (Manmohan Singh has made life difficult for the poor. So in desperation I have voted for BJP's lotus symbol).
The confusion in India's oldest political party is complete. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who apparently took the walloping that the Congress got in the MCD elections in his stride, told reporters, "Defeat and victory are part of elections." Congress party spokesperson Rashid Alvi put out a different spin: "These elections should be taken as local elections." East Delhi MP Sandeep Dixit blamed inflation and corruption for the debacle. 
The BJP is naturally cock a hoop. Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, believes the national mood is 
positively turning against the Congress. Talking to TSI, he said, "This government has failed miserably on all counts, especially on the economic front. Rather than admitting its failure, it has become increasingly arrogant." 
Jaitley believes these trends would also reflect in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress also knows that the party is losing its base in most states, be it assembly elections or the smaller municipal body ones. 
The Congress in defeat is busy stock taking. Tracking the Congress trajectory since the economic reforms were introduced two decades ago, observers say that during Rajiv Gandhi's time, things were favourable for the party, mostly because of the programmes and policies of the government. During PV Narasimha Rao's tenure, the new economic reform policy was launched. 
A number of senior party leaders privately believed that the reforms were not good for the future of the party as they lacked a 'human face'. Senior leader and former foreign minister Natwar Singh, one of the main figures to revolt against Rao, recalls, "We thought the economic reforms were not best suited for the future of Congress. So we asked for the change of guard at the Surajkund plenary session in 1991."
By 1997, when the Calcutta plenary session was held, the party's organisational structure was in shambles. As the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri delivered his opening remarks at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Stadium, Mamata Banerjee, along with the late Ajit Panja, was addressing a large and parallel rally outside. She formed the Trinamool Congress the same year.
After Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of Congress, another split took place. Sharad Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 1999. 
In Kerala, the party set a record of sorts. It broke into many factions like the Kerala Congress (Mani), Kerala Congress (Jacob) and Kerala Congress (Pillai). In the recent past, Jagan Reddy, son of former Andhra Congress strongman YSR Reddy has also parted ways with the parent party and is expected to inflict heavy damages on it come election time.
With a string of successive poll defeats, the Congress is in the grip of severe factionalism in the states. While party heavyweights talk of total unity under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, there are numerous examples of state satraps rebelling against the high command. When Harish Rawat was recently denied a chance to become the chief minister of Uttarakhand, he revolted openly and belligerently against the high command. During the UP election campaign, Union steel minister Beni Prasad Verma went on record saying that after the assembly elections, Manmohan Singh should step down and Rahul Gandhi succeed him.
Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has admitted to rampant weaknesses in the Congress structure. After the BMC elections, she was candid enough to admit that the Congress organisation at the local level was very weak. After the poor performances in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, she added a few more points. Her observation, "Our organisation has hardly any presence at the booth level. There are netas everywhere, but not active members or activists." Her second noting focused on the disproportionate influence of big leaders in the distribution of party tickets. Her parting shot touched upon the twin terrors of inflation and corruption.
Senior Congress UP leader S P Goswami says, "The society has changed but the party has not. If we talk about the Congress structure in UP, it hardly exists. Instead of the blame game, volunteers should be appointed at the booth level and issue based movements must be picked up by the local leaders to focus on local problems. Besides, the state level leadership should be given to those who have a proven organisational background and not to paratroopers."
When Rahul Gandhi became Congress general secretary in 2007, restructuring the organisation was on top of his agenda. For this responsibility, he chose the Youth Congress, aiming to reorganise the youth wing in accordance with the changed psychology of young voters.
But the first elections to pick up a youth leader in Punjab in 2009 came as a shocker to Rahul – all those elected were the kith and kin of Congress stalwarts!
Rahul then decided to literally launch a talent hunt. A committee christened 'Opportunity Between Challenges' was set up and senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily wrote eight volumes of reforms for the party.
Points out senior leader and Congress national secretary, Pankaj Sharma, "Rahul Gandhi has a clear agenda to revamp 
the party. He has an honest approach and logical programme but the seniors have to cooperate."
According to Sharma, "Approximately 153 candidates secured more than 20,000 votes in the UP assembly elections. Our pre-election calculation was that 193 “A” category candidates stood a good chance to win. So our approach in selection of candidates was right but senior party leaders were so vacuous that voters shifted from Congress to the Samajwadi Party. Also the behaviour of some senior leaders leads to suspicion.”
Pankaj Sharma is only airing what many others in the Congress believe. The talk inside the party and 24 Akbar Road, the party headquarters, is about rank indiscipline and fixing responsibility for the defeats. At the same time, they also talk about fiscal mismanagement and serious corruption charges levelled against the government. 
Says CPI national Secretary Atul Anjan, "The General perception about central government policies are that it is not in sync with Congress politics. While UPA 2 took shape because of the performance of UPA 1, it is extremely doubtful whether a UPA 3 is going to happen on the back of UPA 2 when the party has less to tell about its achievements and more about failures." A pithy assessment but hardly the one to warm the cockles of Congress hearts.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017